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Credit: Columbia Pictures

In defense of After Earth, the M. Night Shyamalan movie we misunderstood

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Jan 14, 2019, 2:00 PM EST

By the time After Earth came around in 2013, the moviegoing public was sick of M. Night Shyamalan. After a run of films with increasingly diminishing returns — The Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender — all of the genre auteur's wind had seemingly left his sails, and audiences treated him (and, rather distastefully, his name) with derision. For a pop culture landscape already primed to hate Shyamalan, After Earth promised more of the same, with the added wrinkle of its clear aspirations as a star vehicle for Will Smith's son Jaden.

A high-budget exercise in Hollywood nepotism helmed by one of the industry's most reviled directors? It was a recipe for disaster. Currently, After Earth sports an 11 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with critical consensus calling it "a dull, ploddingly paced exercise in sentimental sci-fi." Only a few writers, including Matt Zoller Seitz, saw its merits when it was released: "It's no classic, but it's a special movie: spectacular and wise."

With the filmmaker experiencing a bit of a Shyamala-ssance (2016's Split was critically well-received, this month's Unbreakable/Split crossover Glass, less so), it's worth going back to After Earth and reviewing its merits now that the pop culture dust has settled. Take a knee and ground yourself in this present moment, dear reader, and let me tell you about how After Earth is actually Quite Good.

It's likely that, if no one saw Shyamalan's name attached to After Earth, it would have been much more generously received. The film lacks many of the hallmarks associated with his worst works — convoluted plotting, languorous runtimes, the dreaded, infamous twists — opting instead for a stripped-down, straightforward father-son, man versus nature story with a science fiction twist. Based on a story idea by Will Smith (after he read a story about a father and son surviving a plane crash), with Shyamalan rewriting original screenwriter Gary Whitta's first treatment, After Earth sands down the auteur's rough-hewn edges by making him a director for hire.

The setting is fantastical: a regrown Earth one thousand years after humanity polluted it and then left to colonize another world. The human race has evolved into something a little like the far-future civilization of Cloud Atlas, with milky-white futuristic architecture, sleekly minimalist clothing and an ambiguously futuristic dialect that sounds like a cross between Star Trek and Foghorn Leghorn. In order to settle their new world of Nova Prime (where's Glenn Close when you need her?), the warriors of Earth (known as Rangers) learned to "ghost," to abandon all fear. This comes in handy when fighting the monstrous Ursas sent by the planet's original colonists, who track by smelling fear.

After Earth.jpg

After Earth

This film stars a real life father-son duo: Will and Jaden Smith. M. Night Shyamalan directs this futuristic story about a son trying to save his father on a savage and dangerous planet Earth. Of course, the quality of the film has, to put it lightly, been called into question, and it kind of bombed at the box office...but let's just call it the movie equivalent of that tie your dad is never, ever going to wear. 

One of the greatest heroes of Earth is General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a stoic, emotionally stunted warrior monk grooming his young son Kitai (Jaden) to follow in his footsteps, in a rather apt metaphor for the film's casting process. Kitai is haunted by the death of his sister (Zoe Kravitz), who was killed by an Ursa years ago, something he blames his absent father for not preventing. He wants to be a Ranger too, but he's failed his cadet evaluation.

To teach him the ways of Rangerdom and repair their relationship, Cypher opts to take Kitai on one last voyage before retirement. Of course, an errant asteroid shower forces them to crash land on a long-abandoned Earth; only the Raige boys survive, though Cypher is critically injured and unable to travel. To get the beacon and call for help, Kitai must make a 100-kilometer journey across a planet that, while once humanity's home, has evolved to "kill humans."

After Earth gets much of this plot setup out of the way early on, as the first act elegantly introduces its characters and world in quick, efficient brushstrokes. The look of humanity's future world is absolutely stunning, an aesthetic populated by elegantly designed, all-white buildings with rotating wind turbines jutting out from burnt orange rock faces. The Rangers' technology feels positively organic, their ships cutting through space like giant silver sharks, with curved interiors with railings and partitions that resemble bones and membranes.

Their combat uniforms are efficient, skin-tight bodysuits that change color depending on their condition (white for medical emergencies, black for threat detection) and carry gadgets from a wingsuit to a wrist communicator.

The Rangers' primary weapon is a retractable, adaptable double-bladed "cutlass," an elegant multipurpose tool that fits After Earth's samurai minimalism. Even just as a showcase for some incredible, original sci-fi production design, Shyamalan's film deserves recognition.

The version of Earth the Raiges crash-land on is rendered with as much love, care, and curiosity as the honeycomb-studded spaceships and bamboo-inspired cutlery of its human characters. Having regrown into a lush jungle in the absence of human intervention, the hostile planet of the film's setting is surprisingly elegant and dynamic, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky capturing the vibrant greens of curling fern leaves and apocalyptic swarms of birds against the night sky.

The CG animals haven't aged nearly as well as everything else, but Shyamalan captures the action aptly. He lingers on small moments like an undulating membrane of a spaceship door opening and closing over a dead body, or Kitai mourning a giant eagle that gave its life to protect him. For a filmmaker known for his excesses, Shyamalan's work is astonishingly efficient here.

But of course, these are mere tools to tell a story, and After Earth's is deceptively matter-of-fact. No Shyamalan twists, no overstuffed ensembles; Kitai must trek from point A to point B across a hostile environment to save their lives, simultaneously dealing with his own survivor's guilt and resentment towards his father. In many ways, it's a classic "boy in the wilderness" story, echoing works like The Jungle Book or A Cry in the Wild, this time elevated by a father-son dynamic in which two men of different generations learn to understand each other.

Kitai learns to let go of his guilt and rage (his Raige?), while Cypher reckons with the cost of his physical and emotional unavailability towards his son. It's more than a little cloying, and sentimental to the bone — but these are features, not bugs.

after earth

Credit: Columbia Pictures

The same can be said for Jaden Smith's performance, frequently cited as one of After Earth's biggest setbacks. As Kitai, Jaden is wide-eyed, stiff, and a bit wooden; like even seasoned actors before him, he's unable to elevate some of Shyamalan's clunkier dialogue ("My suit's turned black! I like it, but I think it's something bad!"). He has the air of the doe-eyed innocent, but that works in After Earth's favor: he's an emotionally unstable brat at first, but soon learns to internalize his father's lessons and rise to the occasion while firmly asserting his individuality. Knowing now the endearingly genderqueer Twitter philosopher he'd become, Kitai feels like the first draft of Jaden's unapologetically idiosyncratic persona.

As for Will, his Cypher Raige (god, I love that silly name) is a much more restrained presence than what we'd expect from one of the most charismatic movie stars of the '90s. He pulls back, his warnings offered in hushed whispers and the occasional frustrated grunt. As a performer, he's very much following Jaden's lead, which throws an interesting wrench in the much-criticized nepotism angle of the film's creation: even in the credits, Jaden's name appears before his father's. By After Earth's final act, Kitai no longer needs Cypher's instruction: the wearied soldier impotently offers advice to the screen as he monitors his son's journey, but Kitai no longer needs it.

Some have criticized Cypher's no-fear philosophy as an example of the classical stoicism we now associate with toxic masculinity; on the contrary, the lesson of After Earth is that, while swallowing your fear is helpful in a life-or-death situation, the cost of cutting off your emotions in everyday life are tremendous.

The more pertinent lesson Cypher imparts to his son is the one that has aged most interestingly in the #BlackLivesMatter era: the simple act of taking a knee. At several points throughout After Earth, Cypher gives this instruction to a frightened or frustrated Kitai, a gesture meant to "root [him] in this present moment now" and calm him for the coming conflict. Rewatch those moments in 2018, and it's impossible not to recognize the emotional and political power such a gesture contains — a black man urging his son to take a knee for his own survival. In fact, After Earth's nature as a sci-fi summer blockbuster starring a mostly-black cast was itself quietly revolutionary in a way we didn't appreciate when it was first released.

By no means is After Earth a perfect film, or even a conventionally good one – its reach frequently exceeds its grasp, and the heightened, alien nature of its human protagonists makes it occasionally hard to connect with them. But it showcases the ambition and imagination that we appreciate in Shyamalan now, a willingness to tell smaller genre stories through his unconventional lens. Few people would probably be willing to put themselves through a marathon of Shyamalan's previous works in the buildup to Glass, but After Earth merits a rewatch in the wake of the filmmaker's rehabilitation – like the overgrown setting of its title, a lot's changed since we last saw it.