After Earth, Part II: Figure in a landscape

The author is also behind an analysis project about M. Night Shyamalan‘s five films from 1999 to 2006. There are several articles on each film: The Sixth Sense (1999, here, here and here), Unbreakable (2000, here, here and here), Signs (2002, here, here, here and here), The Village (2004, here, here and here) and Lady in the Water (2006, here and here). All the articles can also be accessed through this overview. There is also an article about Split (2016). This is the second of two articles about After Earth (2013). The first one is here.

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Even though After Earth is not among M. Night Shyamalan‘s best works, it is made with considerable finesse and craftsmanship. The first half hour is very uneven but the last hour is excellent. Arguments for why it is a much better film than commonly held can be found in the first article.

In the following we are going to see how Shyamalan, faced with commercial and artistic restrictions (see here) luckily not applicable for his early films, has managed to downscale his directorial personality but not losing it. This author does not claim that the devices and methods applied to After Earth are in any way unique or the result of some towering directorial genius. The aim is simply to get at the truth of how this specific film is working. It is hoped, however, that afterwards we can agree there are indeed skill, elegance and beauty in After Earth.

Without further ado we will delve into three brilliant scenes: the poisoning, the dream on the raft, and when Kitai is caught in the cold and the aftermath. (Other outstanding situations are already covered in the first article: the sequence when Kitai reaches the tail section of the ship, and the climactic epiphany on the mountain). The rest of the article is devoted to an always rewarding approach to a Shyamalan film, namely structure: the miniature motif, the embrace echo, some visual rhymes, and examples of the staging of scenes. There are also a couple of addendums, this one deals with the opening of the film.

For readers unfamiliar with the story of After Earth, here is a brief outline of the plot.

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Three brilliant scenes I: The poisoning

Early in Kitai’s journey he gets poisoned by a leech. While rapidly losing sight and bodily control he must administer an antidote. It is a scene of intense urgency, with fine acting by the younger Smith and solid support from his father who must keep calm amid Kitai’s panic.

Many disciplines in Shyamalan’s team here come together beautifully. The make-up for Kitai’s swollen face is terrifying and convincing. The calm, mournful, hymn-like music of James Newton Howard offers a serene counterpoint to the desperation on the screen. The mood is further enhanced by Peter Suschitzky‘s more or less fixed camera position looking up at Kitai. And not least at the background, where nature plays beautiful support: trees are bending and towering over Kitai eerily, a wide angle lens keeping both foreground and background in focus, with a distortive effect.

A brilliant and “invisible” touch is that the worse the boy gets, the background is getting lighter, as if to signal approaching death. As Father announces Kitai have to administer the second and last stage, there is a marked difference in the background light. The angle is suddenly a bit steeper too, more directed towards the heavens, and the trees also look thinner, more precarious.

The shots that start the first and second stages of taking the antidote.

There also seems to be a discernible general brightening during the first stage (although not 100% consistent): judge for yourself in this addendum, which lists all 13 shots of Kitai from this camera position (shot 1-8 first stage, shot 9-13 second stage).

Three brilliant scenes II: The dream on the raft

You are alone in a wilderness where Man has been extinct for a thousand years. Not only that but you are on a raft in the middle of a river. Then suddenly a human being bends down over you. This author still remembers the exquisite feeling of disorientation from the following gentle shock (a slide show can be restarted from the beginning by clicking on the image to make it large and then return):

The above breakdown of the shot into its particulars shows that the effect does not only come from the girl bending down. It is extremely discreet, but the camera first closes in minutely and then gradually reframes the shot upwards, so both girl and camera are co-operating organically in a unified movement. The scene abounds with delicacy: first a disquieting shadow falls over him, then her hair enters the frame with bewildering effect. (The third stage, it can be difficult to see without enlarging.)

Then Kitai wakes up and discovers his sister Senshi sitting there, she who was killed by an Ursa with Kitai as a small boy a terrified witness.
He shows no surprise, however, and in a scene radiating warmth and acted with great delicacy, they are speaking softly for a while. Kitai eventually tells her that he is reading “Moby Dick”, a novel that she and her father had been bonding over. He starts quoting from it…
…but here Senshi’s attitude begins to change. She repeatedly interrupts him by imploring, more and more forcefully, to “wake up”, until desperate measures are called for:

No more Ms. Nice Girl! In this two-second shot, delivering a ruthless jolt to both Kitai and spectator, Senshi takes on a demonic visage to frighten him into waking up. Not only is her voice turned into an inhuman shriek, but there is a visual whiplash: her head twists around to give her appearance a physical force too, while also hiding her disfigurement for a split-second. (For many viewings this author thought she merely applied a generic horror film face to do the job, but this is likely her actual death mask after having been mutilated by the Ursa.)

Kitai must be woken up because he has fallen asleep on the raft and a deadly cold period is coming fast. Is it just his subconscious manifesting a sense of danger as a dream, or is she a true apparition, a ghost? A spiritual messenger? Shyamalan keeps everything open.

The shot just before this scene (see slide show below) poses a fascinating enigma though. Is it merely a general passage-of-time-marking, atmosphere-creating, scene-establishing shot? Or does the downward movement of the camera, finally veering to the left as if towards the shadow, indicate a spirit searching him out? (Or is it the point-of-view of the giant bird that has been seen to follow him?) The fact that it is also breaking the pattern by being the only overhead shot in the film that looks down from some height – otherwise we are never higher than this or this – encourages us to bestow special significance upon it.

The first seconds on the raft are replayed near the closure of the film: in the repetition, in a tighter and more intimate framing, we (and he probably) finally get to hear her resonant words, which are another wake-up call: “You’re still in that box. It’s time to come out.”

(top) original shot; (bottom) the framing of the replay.
Then the camera glides down, yielding the entire frame to him alone.

The final framing just adds to the general feeling of closure in the epiphany phase of the climax. Kitai is centred not only visually but emotionally, and the removal of the sister from the frame signals that he has let go of the unprocessed, crippling grief for her, and after the epiphany he is strong enough to cope with the world alone.

In the hostile environment of the film this 105-second scene is an oasis of serenity and warmth – an emotional equivalent to the planet’s thermal hot spots. In a poetic, scaled-down mirroring of humanity’s extinction on Earth ages ago, the girl’s life was also extinguished, years ago. Jaden Smith is wonderful here, Shyamalan making great use of his naturally beautiful features, and has fine chemistry with a natural Zoë Kravitz as the sister.

The structure is also nice: the scene is bookended with two shocks, one poetic, one horrific. It also starts and ends with a wake-up call, for the reason he opens his eyes, even though from a dream-within-a-dream, is the fact that, after the initial inaudible whisper, her first line is: “Wake up. It’s time for you to wake up.” It also echoes Father’s earlier command that Kitai must wake up after the paralysis that followed the poisoning, also in that case to avoid a cold period.

By the way, this is Kitai’s quote from “Moby Dick” (imperfectly recalled, with his missed words in brackets): “All that [most] maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice [in it]; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle…” The full quote can be found here (item 3), with an explanation. It is supposed to be “the existential heart of the book”.

Three brilliant scenes III: Caught in the cold and the aftermath

In a one-two punch, the dream scene leads to another high point, which is utilising the same strategy of elegant bewilderment. Here Kitai is staggering around in the plummeting temperature.
This is a continuation of the last shot of the above slide show. His eyes have now closed and he looks finished. But now a laconic mystery starts to unfold: totally unexpectedly…
…his head is disappearing out of frame, as if by some resolute force of magic.

An inventive take on the mobile point-of-view shot, made famous by Hitchcock, one of Shyamalan’s heroes. The event is depicted with a detached otherworldliness and becomes even weirder by the methodical way the movement stops and starts three times during the journey. (The above simplified slide show leaves out most of these pauses.) The dragging shot lasts 16 seconds and added to the 14 seconds of the preceding close-up, this segment’s duration and the hero’s passivity help create a mood of frozen stillness.

The next day Kitai wakes up, warm and snug inside a web of thick vegetation. As he clambers out, we get a slow “revealing shot”, whose foreground at first seems to be an unusual kind of rock formation covered with scales…

…but as soon as the camera reveals a strange bump we feel it must be something else, and then the camera pulls back while Kitai seems to become emotional and touches the object. Suddenly, there is an abrupt change to a high angle, revealing not only the object but also the fact that it is probably the same bird that attacked Kitai as he flew down from the clifftop:

The bottom image depicts the last situation we saw the bird clearly, mourning the death of its offspring, killed by the feline predators that attacked its nest.

Here a tender echo is set up: like the bird touched its offspring to check if they were dead, Kitai is repeating the gesture, touching the head of the bird, the next casualty in this chain of death.

The shot’s perspective makes Kitai seem the same size as the offspring in the foreground. This effect might be intentional, for after having observed how Kitai helped defend its hatchlings against the predators, the bird has indeed adopted a guardian role for Kitai. This is why we have seen it in the air above Kitai on a few occasions. (It is also possible that it has eased his journey by taking care of dangers behind the scenes, something that could account for Kitai having encountered relatively few problems.)

The dragging-along scene represents the second time the bird has transported him to a nest, the first time as food, the next to save his life. The situation is also a repetition of Kitai’s past trauma. In the flashback his sister hid him in the box before she gets killed by the Ursa. Here the bird has tucked him away in a nest before it perishes from the cold.

It is fitting that the box of the flashback, a terrarium, contains vegetation, which links it to the nest.

Like his sister sacrificed herself to save him, the bird seems to have done the same. The exact reason for its death is left unclear, however. Has it lost its will to live after losing its offspring? Was it injured fighting the predators? Perhaps this particular hot spot was very small, without room for a giant bird, and the bird perished in the cold soon afterwards? Was it already weak, and might that be the reason for the stops when it dragged Kitai?

Anyway, the episode seems a formative step on Kitai’s road to resolution. The nest is a similarly enclosed space as the box. But instead of cowering like in the flashback, he stood up against the predators, the equivalent of the Ursa of his childhood, and tried to save the hatchlings. He now stands beside the bird pondering the self-sacrifice of his saviour, the equivalent of his sister. The film lingers on the situation, loading it with special emphasis during the final two shots of the scene:

The camera is closing in on him in a tender, slow and gentle movement, indicating that he is absorbing the importance of the situation…
…and then it rises majestically but still tender, into a high-angle shot linking it to these three important overhead shots.

Let us briefly go back to the out-of-focus POV shot. As a measure of Shyamalan’s careful attitude to detail and coherence, in a shot that did not have to be more than an unspecific blur, one can make out the shadowy figures of several birds flying by (not discernible in the screenshot though). This underpins the idea that all living entities are racing to shelter from the cold, but it is also in preparation of the importance of the bird.

Also, in the dying seconds of the shot one can see a shadow grow bigger. Is that meant to indicate that the (generally dark, and black on the underside) bird is arriving to help Kitai?
While we are at it, let us finish off the bird business: the dogfight with the bird is very dramatic and the top image, stressing the similarity of the figures, could signal their future relationship of unity.

The miniature motif I: In the towering forest

After Earth tends to evade close-ups during Kitai’s trek, and as for another technique generally regarded as involving, there is only one hand-held shot in the entire film. Instead Shyamalan is looking for a different kind of immersion. The boy is consistently shown as a minuscule part of the environment, not seldom merely glimpsed among trees and vegetation, while the forest is towering over him.

Incidentally, Peter Suschitzky was one of three cinematographers working on Figures in a Landscape (1970), one of Joseph Losey‘s weakest films but nevertheless interesting for its similar, often dazzling use of landscape, and he also shot the pastorally ravishing Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, 2015).

Consequently, there are very few shots from a great height providing an overview of the landscape. Granted, when Kitai has reached the clifftop there is a grand view of the forest stretching out below him, and there is also a similar vista as soon as Kitai has climbed the hill directly above the wreck. Both shots are taken from the level of Kitai’s position in the landscape, however.

From a higher perspective, there are only two shots (here and here) from some height, both of the river and not yielding much overview. Much like we were totally locked in to the vantage point of the family trapped inside the house in Signs, we are confined to Kitai’s experience of traversing the forest.

The second and third shots inside the forest: Kitai is in awe of an environment he never before has experienced. While the shot is lyrical the immense trunk is also overwhelming him.
The fourth shot inside the forest. The camera is elegantly closing in on the tree, transforming it into a chasm threatening to swallow us up.
Some of the most enchanting shots of the film feature the boy as just a tiny speck in the landscape. Here he discovers the (off-screen) remains of some apes, probably devoured by the roaming Ursa.
Kitai on his makeshift raft, one of the two shots from a bird’s eye perspective.
Kitai starts to scale the mountain from where the distress beacon must be deployed.
Already on Nova Prime the miniature motif is in play: here Kitai meets his father for the first time in the film, a tiny figure who cannot measure up to the elevated (threatening) father since he has failed at becoming a Ranger. There is also a “miniaturised” Earth shot from a similarly elevated position, where the boy can be glimpsed just above the edge of the ancient dam where the camera is placed.

The miniature motif II: The receding principle

Another variation of the miniaturisation motif is when it occurs as a process within a single lingering shot. This turns out to be a governing principle of the film and is always used to set the scene for a momentous event. It starts already as Kitai is leaving the spaceship:

In Kitai’s last shot inside, Shyamalan deliberately maintains this camera position for 23 seconds while the boy is receding into the distance, ending up as a tiny, helpless figure before the immense task facing him. In this type of shot the camera will usually follow him gently, but here, except for some adjustment, it remains immobile.
Here we follow him towards the tail section and then crane up. The main objective of this 24-second shot is to reveal the wreckage and the majestic landscape beyond, but it has the useful side effect of the boy virtually disappearing among the wreckage. (Here he is just by the tree to the left.) Again a big task is waiting: finding various devices and firing the beacon.
The all-important task of climbing the mountain to activate the distress signal is waiting, and again he is disappearing into the landscape, with the camera in slow pursuit. (This movement lasts 21 seconds, but the take is split in two, a cut-away to Father spliced in.)
Having reached the arena for the climax, we ought to expect something similar. And just as Shyamalan ordered, his first action after emerging from the shaft maintains the pattern. (On the narrative plane he looks for an escape route from the Ursa in hot pursuit.) The shot lasts 12 seconds, an ocean of time considering the drama of the situation, and the camera creeps a bit closer in the process.
In elegant closure, the motif returns in the film’s last (18-second) shot, but since the task is accomplished it is only appropriate that Kitai, inside the ship, is now disappearing completely.

The early segment on Nova Prime is a weak part of After Earth but it contains an idea that is not only breathtaking in itself, but prepares a delightful visual rhyme:

In a 46-second shot (the film’s second longest) we are in Kitai’s room where Father tells him they will go on tomorrow’s space trip together. Then the camera, which turned out to be looking in through the window, swoops out to gaze at the city, while we can see Kitai start packing his bags. (At the end he is still visible through the window of the next-highest floor.)
Then on Earth, as Kitai has reached the clifftop, there is a very similar helicopter shot (11 seconds) pulling away from him and taking in the surroundings.
An alternative view of the visual rhyme (click on image to enlarge).

Both shots come at pivotal moments: next Kitai is going on a space mission; soon Kitai will jump off the cliff. (In an amusing echo, Kitai is about to fly both times – the last time on his own power, using the wings of his uniform.) They are both leisurely intermezzi before dramatic events and end with a dwarfed Kitai – yes, this sounds familiar: it is essentially the same device as in the previous examples, except that the dwarfing of Kitai does not happen through him receding from the camera, but the camera is moving away from him.

The receding variation of the miniature motif is so deeply embedded in the film that in itself it is difficult to spot. It can hide in the narrative because it always plausibly coincides with a natural action from the character. It was only late in the process, after many viewings, when I started looking at a complete screenshot gallery to systematise types of shots and formal devices, that the type of the receding character was uncovered.

On the other hand, the visual rhyme of the helicopter shots was easy to pinpoint on early viewings due to their dazzling visual impact. But it was precisely this grandstanding that made them resistant to being seen with the same analytical eye as the quieter shots. The camera instead of the character moving also made it harder, of course.

But with these new eyes, suddenly another scene can take its rightful place as a cog in the film’s governing machinery, namely the climactic three shots of the final replay of Kitai’s trauma flashback:

The three shots have a total duration of 11 seconds and are melted together by ghostly dissolves.

Again Kitai is miniaturised, by a (different type of) camera movement. The narrative position directly preceding Kitai’s epiphany means that also this instance of the motif is “signalling” a pivotal event. (The last stage of the epiphany is Senshi’s apparition saying: “You’re still in that box. It’s time to come out,” directly connecting to the above scene.)

The box keeps Kitai safe but also traps him. In similar fashion the teenaged Kitai is trapped inside the trauma of his childhood. He is still the little boy fearful of the big world with all its threats, with the Ursa embodying his fear, uniquely equipped to sense it. Kitai’s psychological state could explain the presence of the receding miniature motif, resizing him constantly into that little boy. (Since the flashback is constantly replayed in Kitai’s mind, and in the film, After Earth scores a subtle point by showing there is an actual recording of his defeat of the Ursa – a physical recording replacing a recording of the mind, healing replacing trauma, and which in similar fashion can be perennially replayed.)

Coming to think of the flashback: the fact that Kitai is towering over the vegetation inside the box, makes this a grotesque reverse foreshadowing of the conditions on the Earth of his future, where it is nature that will dwarf him.

In summary, the receding motif appears before the following events: leaving his planet, leaving the spaceship, jumping off the cliff, arriving at the tail section, arriving at the mountain, reaching the plateau of the climax – and preceding the epiphany, and leaving Earth in a healed state.

The lingering pace of the shots seems like a smaller-scale version of Shyamalan’s tendency in his early films to heighten tension by slowing things down, at certain moments in a film that must to a certain degree to conform to a mainstream sensibility and pace, with an average shot length of just under five seconds.

The miniature motif III: Merging with a landscape

Another sub-motif is the presentation of Kitai as a figure often merely glimpsed as part of a tapestry of vegetation, almost entirely swallowed up by the surroundings:

This is pervasive in the forest, but also maintained when Kitai reaches the tail section of the ship, where we see Kitai through a latticework of debris, like the foliage in the woods.
Even inside the mountain there are fragmented rock formations that serve the same purpose as the foliage. (They are also needed to deny the Ursa freedom of movement when it attacks Kitai.)
Making a raft, the whole time firmly entangled with the landscape.

The miniature motif IV: Figure in a landscape

There can be no doubt that long shots are overrepresented in After Earth. We will close the investigation into this motif with a collection of shots portraying Kitai as a figure in a vast landscape.

The miniature motif is resolutely marching into the climax.
In the sickbay at the very end, Kitai enters the scene as a tiny figure, and he is seen on the screen in ultra-miniature.

The following is the film’s most beautiful visual rhyme. It also indicates a meaningful evolution, since the shots get progressively more bare, more essential:

The embrace echo

We talked a little about embraces in the first article. There is a quite extensive pattern at play here.

First husband and wife are embracing in a Nova Prime scene, the wife needy and the husband decidedly guarded.
In contrast, in the hangar before spaceship take-off there is a warm embrace between Kitai and his mother.
A veteran who has lost a leg still insists to be helped up and delivers a proud salute to Father, who once saved his life…
…but as he falters, in severe pain, Father hurries over to grab him. Kitai is observing all this.
After take-off Kitai is sending Father warm and excited glances, but there is no real intimacy…
…when they are going to sleep, nearly all passengers are seen to rest their heads backwards, but Kitai leans his head against the strap-in pad, looking melancholy and yearning.

It is tempting to recall the hangar scene, where although Father was just helping the veteran, he was seen leaning his head on Father’s shoulder, in some sort of bittersweet comment on the many other hugs in the film. Is Shyamalan massaging our subconscious here? The action represents the intimacy Kitai is craving, but he has to settle for leaning against an object, while the episode with the veteran also underlines the fact that the way to earn his father’s respect and affection is through military prowess.

After the crash, Kitai first clings to Father while the latter is unconscious, and then there is a long embrace just before he leaves she ship.
At the very end in the sickbay, it is Father’s turn to insist to be helped up. Father saved the veteran’s life, now Kitai has saved Father’s life. But unlike the earlier situation, Kitai does not answer Father’s salute…
…he just runs over and in the embrace rests his head on Father’s shoulder, like the veteran did…
…and now, finally, there is an embrace with no reservations at all…
…very unlike the film’s first embrace, or before Kitai started on his trek.

It is telling that Kitai could not care less about the salute – the highest honour his father can bestow on another person, and something that Kitai craved at the start of the film – he just wants to embrace his father. The film’s last lines – Kitai: “I want to work with Mom.”; Father: “Me too”– seem to be more than the usual standard, self-consciously lame joke where the generic hero pretends the mission has been so strenuous that it would be better to quit.

It sounds like a genuine decision, from both of them, to leave the special status of military life for a quieter life with his mother. Father also announced his coming retirement at the start of the film. Kitai is thus eschewing his newly acquired ability of ghosting, and not least his status as a celebrated hero, through defeating the Ursa. He seems already to have won fame, just see the awe in the look of the Ranger who plays a recording of the killing, made by Kitai’s backpack camera.

There is no overt criticism of military life and values in After Earth, but there is at least an ambivalence. Kitai looks up to Father, but there is the parallel of the veteran, who also worships Father, but military life has left him physically ruined and their mutual salute ends in pain and humiliation. And Father’s salute to Kitai at the end is simply ignored. If After Earth was meant as a gung-ho celebration of heroism it is awfully muted.

They are perfectly aligned in agreement that a quiet life working with Mom is a great idea. This takes the notion of them thinking as one person, which started with the development of a “mystical” connection even when communication was down – discussed in the first article (starting in earnest here) – to its conclusion.

The last we see of Kitai is a 24-second shot where the camera gradually excludes Father, indicating that the boy is now able to stand on his own legs in life. (This could fruitfully be seen in conjunction with the last reframing of his face, which excludes his sister, in the dream on the raft.)

Visual rhymes

In the first article we already discussed the climbing and the cliff as echoes that help create closure. And we have so far pointed out the rhymes of Senshi’s whisper, the helicopter shots and the overhead shots. There are more, however, in the structural network of After Earth.

Important objects are of a similar shape: spaceship, backpack, distress beacon.

The firing of that distress beacon and its aftermath employ light as an elegant motif (as demonstrated in the slide show below): The beam shooting up from Earth is transformed into a blue circle that spreads outwards. It ends with a blinding flash, and then light motif returns in the glow from a cutting device opening up the spaceship – the darkness seems to indicate that it has now lost power (conveniently to allow the upcoming light play its part in the mise-en-scène) – and then it is the turn of the rescue team’s flashlights to participate in this relay of lighting. In nice contrast, the next scene opens with the overwhelming brightness of the sickbay.

If we turn out the last view of the blue beam on its head, it is easier to see a nice touch: it leaves the frame at virtually the exact point where light enters the frame in the next shot.

During the epiphany Shyamalan fixates on Kitai’s bloodied hand. Blood was central to Father’s epiphany of his first ghosting too, according to his monologue: “I can see my blood bubbling up mixing with the sunlight shining through the water. And I think, ‘Wow that’s really pretty’. And everything slows down.”

So this mixture of the dreadful (the blood) and the beautiful (the vision) is undeniably important, like Kitai is using the bloodied hand as an instrument in grounding himself. Let us then chase down the small but persistent hand/blood circuit running through the film.

Kitai’s hand is reminiscent of the powerless hand of the corpse in the Nova Prime “history lesson” at the start of the film.
Top from left: Kitai’s hand after he has moved Father after the crash; Father’s hand after he has opened his thigh; (bottom) to put in the bypass.
Finally, some other significant hand business: the spider on Kitai’s first climbing session; the leech; and its poison spreading.

After the film’s hyperdramatic start (more about that here) with the spaceship in distress and Father blown away by an explosion, there is a sudden cut to Kitai lying on the forest floor (below). We could believe he was thrown out of the spaceship by the crash, but the shot is actually from the aftermath of the poisoning much later in the film. (Technically, I guess this makes the entire film until we catch up to that point a flashback, but I have chosen not to treat it as such in these articles.)

From this position he ostensibly gives us a “history lesson” in voice-over about how humanity found a new home on Nova Prime after having had to escape Earth.

Top: the “history lesson” shot; (bottom:) Kitai sleeping off the paralysis, an after-effect of the poisoning. The shots seem to be from different takes. Not only is the ground much less trampled. We also see that the flower (which could be a pansy) in the foreground of the top shot has disappeared. It is possibly planted for poetic effect, its serenity in contrast to his pained body.
Perhaps it is possible to compare it with another “flower”, from that very history lesson, a dead tree adorned with impaled humans, done by the the Ursa.
The dissolve ending the history lesson is not without bittersweet poignancy: its final shot is a triumphant image of Father in his prime, having just killed an Ursa, but the dissolve merges him with his fallen son, the fate of the great man and lineage ending in humiliation and disaster on Earth.
More rhyming: turning point echoes. (In the first case, Father wants him to turn around to return to the ship, so it is a “real” turning point too.)
Both the bird and the Ursa drag Kitai out of shot in similarly shaped compositons.
“Take a knee.”

Staging

As we have pointed out time and again in these Shyamalan writings, his perhaps greatest strength lays in mise-en-scène. Within the confines of this type of film, which demands a far less formally adventurous approach, it comes across in After Earth on a smaller scale, in shorter and less visually stylised shots.

In the first article we already discussed the “curtain” scene directly after the crash, one of the best, and very Shyamalanian, visual ideas of the film. We also looked at a couple of scenes inside the tail section as examples of how his camera, even though somewhat distanced, behaves like a living, sensitive, intelligent being – not something that is merely pointed at the action to record it, but an entity that is breathing together with it. So let us complete the picture.

On an intimate scale: the cut between these shots is made on doors – Kitai leaves the officer in charge of promotion in shame, cut to Father entering his home, precisely the person whom Kitai has to face with his failure.
The film’s most beautiful moment is made even more engrossing by the lingering crane movement closing in on the ground.

Father’s monologue about his first ghosting is told through long takes, interspersed with lingering cut-aways of a spellbound Kitai. (The 61-second start of the story is the longest take in After Earth.) Both father and son is captured with an unmoving camera, bonding them, but after Father have finished recounting his epiphany he says: “I don’t want that in there any more,” (about the attacking Ursa’s pincher in his shoulder). At this turning point of his story, the decision to act, something happens:

The camera starts sinking almost imperceptibly until it ends in the position in the bottom image. Another very Shyamalanian idea, just on a smaller scale. (It is probably the holographic map of the area we see in the foreground, so the movement is connected to Kitai’s task, in which he too must master his fear.)
After Earth has been criticised for Father’s static part in the story, but it should be noted that Shyamalan employs various means, large and small, to compensate. This is a 33-second slow forward movement, recording as it is “passing through” the holographic map showing how the probes are employed, then how they land and transmits ground data, while Father is briefing Kitai about the trek (about hot spots for example).
Here is a more discreet movement, underpinning Father’s dizziness after having inserted the arterial shunt.
On the whole, the holographic representation of various instrument panels, very often intruding between the actors and the lens, creates quite a lot of visual variety, also for the spaceship crew (bottom shot).
It can be slightly surreal at times: here Father looks at the visual transmitting from a probe.
One of the film’s most moving moments is this shot of the spaceship window, with the camera approaching gently while the ice has started to melt and slides down the window. Both the movement, in camera and ice, and the melting itself, prefigures the inexorable moment when Kitai has to leave the safety of the ship…
…and the emotional power is heightened since it follows this shot, where the camera is echoing the forward movement and the sadness of the characters is translated, Kuleshov-like, into the tears of the meltwater on the window. The scene is also accompanied by mournful music (the same as in the poisoning scene).
As so often in Shyamalan, even in these more mainstream efforts, there is a stimulating use of the depth dimension, with full activation of background and foreground. Here Kitai is chased by the apes, storming right towards us.
A more striking example of the same type of approach shot, a little later, with the camera waiting for him to rush all the way from the treeline up to the lens. Here the camera also demarcates a goal line, since the apes apparently do not like water and refuse to follow him.
Here the position is again held until Kitai arrives into a close shot – holding back information, raising curiosity by refusing to show us the view that Kitai obviously gets excited about as he is coming up – and then reveal finally comes, through a majestic cut. (The far-away plume of smoke comes from the mountain, the arena-to-be of the climax.)

Here a reveal happened through a cut. Moving the camera, however, to gradually reveal salient elements of the narrative is often more elegant and part of any director’s toolbox. Shyamalan’s use of it is not in any way revolutionary but is applied with unfailing elegance.

It is not as important in After Earth as in its “companion film” The Last Airbender though, where it is an extremely consistent part of that film’s visual strategy. In this and the first article we have already discussed the helicopter visual rhyme, the reveal of the bird, as well as Kitai’s approach to the tail section revealing the wreckage and the landscape beyond, and his movement through the tall vegetation to the field in front of the mountain of the climax.

We shall end this article with some other examples, which provide the bonus of an often beautiful tour of yet unseen parts of After Earth. (The revelation of the Ursa waiting for Kitai in the cave, perched high above his head, is also nice but the scene is too dark to reproduce very well in screenshots.)

After the climb directly after leaving the spaceship, our full view is delayed so we can share his exhilaration about the landscape.
After a cut-away to Father inside the spaceship, vast herds are revealed in pastoral beauty.
After another cut-away to Father, Kitai marvels at the sight of birds forming enormous patterns in the sky.
Shyamalan holds back information but eventually slides the camera down to reveal what Father is doing.
We see Kitai arriving among the bushes before the camera slides down to uncover remains from a possible Ursa kill.
Kitai stands frozen in the far distance but it is not until he has left that the camera sinks down to reveal his discovery. Most directors would have cut to a close-up somewhere in order to feast on Kitai’s shocked expression, but Shyamalan is operating on a more restrained level, unnerving us in a more profound way. The eeriness of the camera movement in itself plays an important part.
Kitai has arrived at an ancient dam and the camera looks further up in the sky, capturing the giant bird that seems to follow him.
The camera lingers on the breathing fluid vials (just one left) before it looks up at the map, which helps Kitai calculate how much of that fluid is needed. It also performs a comparison between his modern equipment on the ground and the map, which continues the tradition of the prehistoric paintings in the cave. (Earlier on he saw flows of lava within the cave system, which may explain the cause of the hot spots on the surface.)
Kitai exits the cave again and the camera starts to glide towards a river…
…and in one fell swoop takes in some animals, a waterfall and the omnipresent bird. The animals are presumably the same that led him to the entrance of the cave system and now have led him out again at another place. (Showing the animals here thus has a subtle narrative function.)
Let us move into space, to the scene where the mortally wounded ship is looking for a place to land. On closer inspection, this brief six-second shot turns into a surprisingly intricate and inventive ultra-short film in itself. First there is a blue outline which seems to be the ship, together with some faintly glinting spots…
…but suddenly as if a curtain is drawn, a planet appears…
…and now the spaceship enters – the blue in the first shot turns out to have been merely its reflection in an enormous screen hiding in the darkness of space…
…as the ship is passing, red alarm lights are set off, warning that Earth is a quarantined planet…
…while the contraption tilts and turns, creating a giddy kind of topsy-turvy feeling. The sight is accompanied by a sudden, highly evocative metallic shriek on the soundtrack.

We round off these two articles about M. Night Shyamalan‘s pleasurable film After Earth with another stirring shot from beyond the heavens, where a ship modeled after the aquatic ray is about to swim in the sea of space.

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Addendum A: The 13 poisonous shots

Here are the 13 shots of Kitai in the poisoning scene from a certain camera position (shot 1-8 details the first stage of administering the antidote, shot 9-13 the second stage).













Addendum B: The start of the film

The opening of After Earth is quite audacious, possibly so as a creative way of implementing cuts deemed necessary due to poor test audience reactions and the need to have an exciting start. It works quite well, however. There are marked contrast in sound level. The company logos are silent, abruptly followed by the ear-wrenching cacophony inside a mortally wounded spaceship.

Over this we see three snippets of the 26-second scene about 21 minutes into the film where Father is calming a panicked Kitai as the spaceship is heading for an emergency landing on Earth. The alarmed voices on the soundtrack belong to the pilot and navigator, but their exclamations are taken from the previous scene in the cockpit.

Father is blown away by an explosion and next we see Kitai lying on the forest floor, as if he was thrown out of the ship on impact. But this is taken from the aftermath of the poisoning and occurs at about 43 minutes. Contrast in sound continues for this shot is dead silent. Then his voice comes on the soundtrack, kicking off the “history lesson” with the historical backdrop for humanity leaving Earth and settling on Nova Prime.

Top: Kitai as he lays before and after the history lesson; bottom: Kitai as he falls to the ground after having taken the antidote for the poisoning.

Interestingly, these two shots seem to be from different takes – even when he will eventually come to rest on the ground in the continuation of the bottom shot (we don’t get to see that) it is hard to believe that he can end up in the position of the top shot.

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