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 first of two articles about After Earth (2013). The second one is here.
After Earth (2013) was met with the hostility obligatory for a M. Night Shyamalan film at the time. On this occasion, however, he had the pleasure of weathering the hailstorm of criticism together with Will Smith, originator of and central actor in the project, and his son, the inexperienced lead actor Jaden Smith. Even though not credited as co-director, the elder Smith is supposed to have been responsible for the acting, at least for his son, and Shyamalan for the other aspects of the film.
Everyone is of course free to speculate about the motives behind making a movie. Was After Earth merely a massive megalomaniac vanity project from the Smith family? Was it just a fantastically expensive, star-making gift from father to son: “I’m going to buy you a blockbuster”? Was it simply a vehicle for Will Smith to prove to the world he was capable of doing a serious role, plus showing himself in an ultra-flattering light as a character of boundless machismo and military honour, superhuman endurance, coolness under pressure and perfect fearlessness? Was it merely a scheme to publicise Scientological thinking? Was it ultimately a case of advanced child abuse, hurling a boy into a role for which he was woefully unprepared?
Such speculative thinking has nothing to do with serious film criticism, however, and will be banished from this article. It will only engage with what can be gleaned from the words, sounds and images between the company logos and the end titles.
Sure, the first half hour of After Earth has problems. When it hits its stride, however, as the fearful 15-year-old protagonist has to force himself to navigate the exceptionally hostile Earth of a thousand years into the future, this author finds it impressive, with several stand-out scenes. M. Night Shyamalan and cinematographer (and Cronenberg regular) Peter Suschitzky depict events with a calm and elegant gaze, staging scenes with intelligence and sensitivity, often using a probing camera to gradually reveal the situation.
After Earth is not an action film but a lyrical journey of visual beauty, with some suspenseful intermezzos. It tends to evade close-ups during the boy’s trek, instead the filmmakers are looking for a different kind of immersion: the boy is consistently shown as a minuscule part of the environment, not seldom merely glimpsed among the trees and vegetation. The film is also richly endowed with visual rhymes, of which this is the most beautiful and resonant:
The background of this future civilisation is probably less carefully thought out than in most science fiction movies. For example, it seems quite silly that the rangers, a military corps, are not utilising more powerful weapons than a futuristic cutlass, only good for close-range fighting. A lot of the criticism has revolved around perceived plot holes and related weaknesses. But such literal-mindedness sometimes does us a disservice. The Star Wars universe, for example, could probably be hacked to pieces with an axe of logic, but that does not mean it cannot be a place where powerful fables can unfold, with a magnificent example in The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) – incidentally another film shot by Suschitzky.
It must be said, however, that After Earth is upon repeated viewings not as durable as its equally flawed predecessor The Last Airbender from 2010, in many ways a “companion film”. It is more one-dimensional, its enjoyment more dependent on a local experience of its outstanding scenes. While the sum of After Earth might not be much greater than its parts, The Last Airbender is triumphantly shaking off its limitations and cascading into an unforgettable climax.
After Earth is remarkable for Shyamalan in three ways: It is his first digitally shot film. It is also his least dialogue-heavy. It has 33.9 words per minute, whereas the former record holder, The Village, has 47.9. (Others less than 60 words per minute are The Last Airbender with 50.8, The Sixth Sense with 51.1, Signs with 57.0 and Unbreakable with 57.6.) It also has the fastest cutting rate of his films with an average shot length of 4.99. (This is followed by Split with 5.96, The Last Airbender with 6.80 and The Happening with 7.16.)
This article is in three parts. The first part is a general discussion of the bad, the decent and the good about the film. The second part analyses a central pair of characters and a central sequence: the relationship between father and son will be explored and springing out from that, a late segment will be examined, richly illustrated by screenshots. The third part compares the film with his other works: first with its “companion film“, then references to other works are rounded up, and finally we shall see how a common motif of ancient times is handled. (Perceived plot holes and related weaknesses are discussed in this addendum.)
Look here for how After Earth fits into the director’s common themes, motifs, trademarks and statistics etc.
For readers unfamiliar with the story of After Earth, here is a brief outline of the plot.
Judged against what it is obviously trying to do, rather than what its critics insist it is doing and failing at, the last hour of After Earth is excellent. Before we get so far, however, we have to navigate a terrain that, if not as treacherous as the angry Earth of the future, still is riddled with pitfalls. The scenes on Mankind’s new home, the planet Nova Prime, feel very thin and flat. Is this because of the severe cuts that were supposed to have happened to these early stages? On the other hand, the reason was rumoured to be bad reactions to test screenings, so perhaps the excised scenes really were awful. Then again, test audiences have not always proved themselves receptive, to put it mildly, to Shyamalan’s more ambitious ideas.
Will Smith’s character of the Father – we will stick with that name rather than General Raige – the absent military man who demands strict discipline and his son to call him Sir, comes across as very banal. (It seems fitting that his first name is Cypher, an alternative spelling of cipher, i.e. a nonentity.) We must have seen whole regiments of such cliché characters in the movies by now. Furthermore, Father’s stiffness and awkwardness with emotions are not, except for a few details, presented in any interesting way, through any inventive staging or special moments – for example, we must have seen that family dinner scene a million times before – to make him vibrate with life. Will Smith obviously attempts to underplay the character, internalising his emotions, but in these early stages he remains an empty vessel.
The mother of the family, played by Sophie Okonedo, also comes across as exceedingly stiff and strange, almost android-like, with a mechanical, broad smile spilling out on her face. She says about Kitai, the son: “He’s a feeling boy. He’s an intuitive boy.” Possibly “feeling boy” is supposed to hint at some futuristic turn of phrase, but stand-alone it sounds very odd and children’s TV-like. She goes on: “He watched you read that book with Senshi his entire life.” (We will learn through soon-to-come flashbacks that Senshi [Zoë Kravitz] is Kitai’s sister, killed in a surprise Ursa attack years ago, and that Kitai blames himself for not helping her.) Mentioning things as if the audience is already supposed to know about them is often a sign that something has been cut.
The book is “Moby Dick”, which one get the feeling Father is obsessed about. We never learn why, however, and how it fits into After Earth is completely up to our interpretative skills. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it feels as something is missing.
This segment is not totally without ideas. There is a breathtaking visual where the camera swoops out from a scene in Kitai’s room to gaze at the nighttime city. We also have the following, but it is so subtle that one really must wonder if it is a fluke or intentional:
Flashforwarding to Earth: there is more awkwardness as Father, injured inside the crashed spaceship, has two flashbacks that are very tinny and strange. In both Father seems very embarrassed having to communicate with his daughter with other soldiers around. This is what I call “The Happening Syndrome”. Like quite often with the two lead characters of the 2008 Shyamalan film – which still has quite a few rewarding aspects – it is very hard to figure out how these flashbacks are supposed to work. It is impossible to understand whether Father is trying to act funny to amuse his daughter, if he is so distracted/embarrassed he cannot follow what she is saying, or if he is wholly unable to communicate like a normal human being. (In the second flashback Mother turns up in the background, deploying her broad grin again, not helping matters.)
The flashbacks are occurring in a disoriented man stoned on painkillers and otherwise near death, which could explain the tinny, otherworldly atmosphere. One suspects though that they are scenes meant for the Nova Prime segment, but ditched to get the action faster to Earth, and then converted into flashbacks to give Senshi some screen time in preparation for the film’s arguably best scene, where she appears as an apparition on Kitai’s raft.
Back to Nova Prime: Perhaps with the cut footage restored – no deleted scenes on the Blu-ray to judge from – the current material might seem more natural, organically plugged into a more fully realised social and geographical environment. On the other hand, since the events on Earth are vastly more interesting, perhaps it is for the best to get off Nova Prime asap?
The life and especially the technological level on Mankind’s new planet are also very sketchily drawn, even though massive work seems to have gone into the world-building. Frustratingly, the Blu-ray extra material featurette about that talks and talks but does not go into much detail. (A book was published detailing the background for the universe, you can get a sarcasm-laced summary here.)
Things improve ten minutes into the film. The spaceship lifts off and we are soon treated to an enjoyable, tense scene. Here the Norwegian Game of Thrones actor Kristofer Hivju plays a veteran Ranger who gets diabolically playful satisfaction from teasing Kitai into testing his courage by approaching a caged Ursa. Then follows a fairly standard spaceship-in-trouble bridge scene (with Sacha Dhawan and Chris Geere well-cast as a believably experienced pilot and navigator).
There is a crash on Earth, a fine wake-up scene after 22 minutes, Kitai seemingly a lone survivor. He finds his father badly injured. The time until Kitai leaves the ship at the 31-minute-mark culminates in a heavily expository four-and-a-half-minute dialogue scene, laying out the restrictions, rules and goals for his 100-kilometre mission to find the distress beacon in the ship’s tail section. (Not surprisingly, Gary Whitta, the original screenwriter, has a background from computer games.)
Except Father’s two flashbacks, from now on I am hard pressed to find one single weak scene – although Father’s almost three-and-a-half minute monologue about how he stumbled upon the ability of ghosting, holds less fascination upon repeated viewings. (Ghosting is how to become invisible to the Ursa by controlling your fear. The monologue’s theme-important conclusion is: “And it dawned on me fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity, Kitai. Now, do not misunderstand me. Danger is very real. But fear is a choice. We are all telling ourselves a story. And that day, mine changed.” Thematically, the Ursa is of course an embodiment of Kitai’s feeling of crippling inadequacy towards the world and his father.)
There is one false note perhaps, concerning Kitai’s disastrous encounter with the apes, his first test on the trek: although it conforms with what we have been told – the officer who refuses to promote him says: “In the classroom, you are an outstanding Ranger but in the field, you collapse,” and we have witnessed his traumatising flashbacks – we could possibly have been better prepared for the extent of his panic.
I really cannot see how the acting of Jaden Smith can be called anywhere near atrocious. Yes, he has some diction problems here and there, for example in his first speaking scene – unfortunate for our first impression – as he pleads with his superior to be promoted from Cadet to full Ranger. There is something off here: his demeanour and way of speaking do not tally with what one expects from a young military man having been through a considerable period of rigorous training. (He also looks very young and thin compared to the others.)
He had tested our patience even earlier when in the explanatory voice-over, he ungrammatically announces: “This phenomena is known as “ghosting””. One marvels that this has not been fixed in sound-editing, especially since his voice-over is using the correct “phenomenon” for the alternative start of the film, an extra on the Blu-ray. (The clifftop scene where he rebels against his father is also walking on very thin ice. He sounds more whiny than angry, but his lines come with suitable agitation and passion.)
Am I making excuses for the film, or explaining things away, when I am pointing out (the obvious) that his character is supposed to be weak, frightened, whiny and pathetic for a considerable stretch of the film? He is frozen in a very strange expression during the long, above-mentioned “rules and regulations” scene. But is he not supposed to be in half-shock, having just crash-landed on an extremely hostile planet, everyone dead except his badly injured father? His performance in the scene is one-note, slightly odd perhaps, but not inappropriate for a person crippled by trauma.
We also ought to be a little careful about contemporary judgements of actors. I don’t mean to argue that Jaden Smith is on her level, but Tippi Hedren was ridiculed for her acting in The Birds and Marnie, today she is revered for it.
The elder Smith comes into his own towards the end of the film, with some intense close-ups, convincingly exhausted but still in possession of his senses. The following slide show is a demonstration:
People are complaining about the CGI – I sometimes wonder if we have not become obsessed with its perceived failings, to the point of prejudice – but I find it is doing its job and is mostly seamless. Our view of the vista that suddenly opens before Kitai on the edge of the cliff is dimmed by a haze, to obscure the artificiality. Perhaps we should not expect photographic realism from digital special effects, and in earlier times we were able to use our imagination when effects would look far dodgier.
After Earth has several stand-out scenes, and most of the following summary will be returned to in the second article:
- The poisoning: A sense of intense urgency (enhanced by the fixed camera position), fine acting by the younger Smith, great use of make-up for his swollen face, trees bending and towering over him eerily, with the nice touch of the background getting lighter the worse he gets (death often associated with a blinding white light)
- The dream scene on the raft: In a hostile environment an oasis of serenity and warmth – an emotional equivalent to the planet’s thermal hot spots – the younger Smith wonderful, with great use of his naturally beautiful features, the scene bookended with a poetic shock (on a planet empty of humans, someone suddenly bending down over him!) and a horror film shock (the apparition of his dead sister adopting a disfigured face to scare him into waking up)
- The cold attack and its aftermath: Smith is excellent here too, staggering along as the temperature drops, and then the brilliant idea, again totally unexpected, of the point-of-view shot of the surroundings passing by as the boy is dragged along by some mysterious force; the aftermath lyrical as he discovers the bird that gave its life to save him
- The scene at the tail section: The elder Smith’s exhausted intensity and urgency, the broken communication but then a magical breakthrough, against the powerful and meaningful backdrop of the volcano
- the epiphany on the mountain, where everything comes together
The film’s first overhead shot, the top picture for this article, is breathtaking in its sudden beauty and lyricism however many times I watch the film, especially as it is coming straight after the poisoning scene: first hell, then paradise. The snow falling seemingly in slow-motion at the arena of the climax is another inspired touch.
Furthermore, the scene in the cave is very nice with the poetic touch of the prehistoric cave paintings, and the boy continuing the tradition thousands of years later by drawing a map on the wall. I also often found the suspense exciting: for example the diving-off-the-cliff scene with the following dogfight against the bird, and Kitai attacked by the Ursa inside the mountain.
Generally I found the calm, half-distanced visual approach of the film’s last hour appealing, especially how the boy was shown as part of the environment. In this roundtable discussion at VulgarCinema John Lehtonen speaks of Shyamalan “regaining the serene, or breathing, quality of his work» and «a sense of pastoral reverence”. The staging is also often impressive and nuanced. When I went through the film very carefully, shot by shot, moment for moment, what had been mostly “invisible” became apparent: how thoughtful, varied and expressive so many of the shots were set up and framed.
The score by Shyamalan regular James Newton Howard is more discreetly applied this time, but it is often beautiful: hymnlike during the poisoning scene, majestic when Kitai conquers his fear, gentle in the aftermath of the crash, methodical and with quiet urgency and then measured triumph yet highly evocative during the breakthrough at the tail section.
The big event of the past looming over Kitai is the traumatising death of his sister, with him as an eye-witness. Father’s big event was pure triumph, the discovery of ghosting, as recounted to Kitai during the first night. The two characters are further linked by both having flashbacks involving Kitai’s sister, but here too there is only trauma for Kitai, while Father has pleasant memories.
Even after the crash-landing on Earth that plunges Kitai into uncharted territory, outlandish and terrifying in innumerable ways, he is actually still stuck in a social pattern that has governed his whole life: Father is not present, contact restricted to communications technology. It is telling that both of Father’s flashbacks depict him communicating long-distance while on military missions. Furthermore, they are almost entirely devoted to interactions with his daughter, his favourite. Both times Kitai turns up only as some sort of afterthought, his marginalisation visually emphasised by being relegated to a corner edge of the image.
In the second flashback Kitai blows out the birthday cake candles instead of Father, foreshadowing the fact that on Earth he will have to fill his father’s shoes. During the trek things boil over for Kitai, and in the turning point scene on the clifftop a bitter argument arises between him and an unperturbed, icily logical Father, who wants him to abort the mission. (There might be an unspoken emotional reason: Father wants them to be together when they die, rather than sending the boy on a doomed attempt to reach the tail.)
The crisis ends with a literal leap of faith, Kitai doing what Father was convinced he would not manage. Rage suppressing fear, he hurls himself out over the cliff’s edge to glide down using his uniform’s artificial wings – this shortcut is the only way he can reach the tail section of the ship on what’s left of his breathing fluid vials. (Coincidentally, this part of Father’s ghosting monologue,“Next thing I know, we’re over the cliff, falling 30 metres straight down into the river,” might have given Kitai the idea, perhaps only subconsciously, and it definitely also foreshadows the climactic fight between boy and Ursa, which takes place by the edge of a chasm.)
The clifftop scene plays on underlying problems that are mostly hinted at, so there is a lot to unpack. The crisis stems from Father’s real, or by Kitai imagined, disdain for the surviving child – he whom Father liked least was the one to survive the Ursa raid. But how can a father blame a son for remaining passive, when he is a small boy and his sister is 19 and a ranger like Father but is still mowed down? Favouritism may nevertheless create a subconscious disdain, perhaps compounded by the fact that Kitai seems to have had a cutlass with him, a weapon that was never used against the Ursa, when he hid from it in the box.
On the clifftop Father has discovered that Kitai has kept the destruction of the breathing fluid vials from him. Probably Kitai is innocent of carelessness – the vials might have perished in the tumults on the journey – but again he blames himself for a mortal disaster, this time the impending death of his father and himself. He conflates the current situation on the cliff with the other situation he feels guilty about, the past trauma of Senshi’s death.
When Kitai is ordered to abort the mission, the word “order” triggers the trauma flashback again. This time there is two new pieces of information: Senshi orders Kitai to stay in the box no matter what. She also seems very nervous. Later, when she appears in his dream on the raft, he asks her why she could not ghost during the Ursa attack. She does not answer. It is likely, however, that she became unnerved by the unusual situation of her own brother being in danger. This could have made her sufficiently afraid to be unable to ghost, as a proper ranger should, and Kitai expects her to, hence his question on the raft. This is the reason she was detected by the Ursa in the apartment. Maybe her fear even drew it to that specific apartment in the first place. In the dream she avoids his question. She does not want to tell him the truth because it will make him feel even more guilty.
The flashback also reveals a third thing: she cried out for Father as she died. Before Kitai leaps off the cliff, this makes him say: “And where were you? She called out for you! She called your name! And you weren’t there, because you’re never there! And you think I’m a coward? You’re wrong! I’m not a coward! You’re the coward! I’m not a coward!”
Towards the end of the film father and son, fantastically, become as synchronised. They start to think like one person. Thus Kitai gets his wish fulfilled, for we see him on Nova Prime being relentlessly ambitious, trying to follow in his father’s footsteps, measuring himself against him (“I ran the canyons 11 seconds faster than you did.”) If he cannot have contact with his father, he intends to become him. On the cliff the demarcation between father and son become even more blurred, as Kitai says: “I’m not a coward! You’re the coward!” (Quite an audacious thing to say to a man without fear.)
With Kitai having reached the tail section but communications only half-restored – Father can see Kitai but audio is down – he again goes into a rage, this time because he cannot get the distress signal beacon to work. Like on the cliff, the outburst seems to reset or empty him, and in the exact moment his father says “Take a knee”, the boys actually obeys…! Confined to the spaceship wreck, Father wills Kitai to understand what he must do.
Is it a moment of spiritual breakthrough? Is it telepathy? Is Father so beside himself and exhausted by the serious injury that he is suddenly able to tap into some hidden mental resource? The answer is deliberately left open. I prefer the down-to-earth interpretation that they start to think like one person, and that this signals a breakthrough of professionalism in Kitai. (At the end of the film, in the sickbay, as they embrace they also become physically as one, and the alignment is by now perfect when they agree that a quiet life working with Mom is a great idea.)
This “telepathy” is also a smart move because the film needs to explain us even more about the plot, and this now happens with dramatic force and sense of urgency, instead of just feeling like more exposition: “It is the ionic layer in the atmosphere above your current position. It is causing electrical interference. That is why the beacon is not firing. To your north. The peak. You must fire the beacon from the peak of that mountain. See it, Kitai. Please…” Soon, when a frightened Kitai stumbles upon a tree with a human being impaled on it (by the Ursa), we get more interesting background information: “It is a pheromone trigger. He set it to scare you so he can track you. Keep moving.” (Father’s ability to “remote-control” his son like a puppet here gives a wry twist to his admonition to Kitai before leaving the ship: “Do exactly as I tell you and we will survive.”)
In the following I am going to use part of this sequence to give the reader a foretaste of the quite subtle nature of the not-so-readily-apparent qualities of After Earth. We will see that the action is constantly underpinned by many invisible “little helpers”. Many of these strategies will be examined in more detail in the second article. At the same time, I will trace a few subtle alignments – further synchronisation – between father and son as they occur.
After Earth does not rival its “companion film” The Last Airbender in the latter’s masterful and extremely consistent use of “revealing shots”, where camera movement gradually reveals the salient elements of a scene. But the situation in the following slide show is not untypical. Please note the gradual revelation, like a theatre curtain gradually being drawn away, of the scene’s majestic surroundings, as the camera follows Kitai over the mound and rises to take in wreck, volcano and the landscape further away. Also note that the boy temporarily obscures the volcano, postponing our full view of it, and thus participates in the revealing process. (All slide shows can be restarted from the beginning by enlarging the current image by clicking on it and then returning to the article.)
It is also noteworthy how the boy is swallowed up by the surroundings at the end. This is a very important motif of the film, pervasive in the forest, but maintained also inside the wreck, where we see Kitai through a latticework of debris, just like the foliage in the forest:
After a close-up of Kitai finding new breathing fluid vials, we return to this more distanced view, which is probably a continuation of the previous take. This shot is a good illustration of the visual strategy of After Earth. Even though the view is somewhat distanced, that does not mean the camera is disinterested. Rather, it behaves like a living, sensitive, intelligent being, acting in tandem with Kitai’s movements, subtly intensifying the situation:
In this film the camera is not something that is merely pointed at the action to record it, it is a living entity in the film, breathing together with it. At the same it is highly flexible, smoothly repositioning itself and the framing to convey the story:
After the film’s only hand-held shot – in fact, one of the few in Shyamalan’s entire oeuvre (except for the “found footage” film The Visit, of course!) – as Kitai gingerly approaches the ruined Ursa containment box, it is nowhere to be seen. We see him struck by panic, and now the almost mystical alignment between father and son starts stirring, through subtle cross-cutting.
The film cuts to Father inside the wreck. Like Kitai’s crisis (the Ursa is loose), there is a crisis for Father: an alarm goes off indicating that the bypass in his injured thigh has stopped working. He wakes up, but the sound of the alarm is curiously mute. It is almost as if it is Kitai’s distress one hundred kilometres away that has roused him. This kicks off two minuscule flashbacks, presented in a slide show a bit further down.
The point of the flashbacks is to show that Father refuses to give up. In the first one, Kitai as a three-year-old brings Father the cutlass with a serious look. Cut back to Father in the wreck, shaking his head, saying “No”. In the second glimpse, his wife kisses Kitai and they leave the room. Again Father reacts with defiance. It is as if his wife and child are saying goodbye to him, but he grunts, refusing to comply. The curious thing is that at the tail Kitai has just found a cutlass, and in the flashback he gives a cutlass to Father – it as if Father’s memory about the three-year-old is transmitting a plea for help from the 15-year-old Kitai.
This brief sequence is very moving – partly through the very suddenness of this burst of lyricism – dominated by mournful silence, elegance of movement, the endearing look of Sincere L. Bobb as Kitai the toddler, and the bittersweet fact that the cutlass is emblematic of everything that has kept Father away from his family:
Interference stops them from communicating. Father can see and hear everything, but Kitai cannot hear him. It is a moving moment when Father says: “I’m here. I swear to you I’m here.” When Kitai cannot get the distress beacon to work either, things boil over for him and he goes into a rage:
Father implores him to “take a knee”, to ground and calm himself, a vital part of the ritual of being a Ranger. As if by miracle, Kitai almost immediately complies. While the mountain is constantly beckoning in the background – but it is also dark and foreboding; it will turn out that the Ursa is waiting for him there – Father is saying out loud what Kitai has to do. Shyamalan is stretching out time here, both we and Father are willing Kitai to understand, as if we are in the audience at a chess tournament and know the correct move, trying by sheer willpower to make the player do it:
After Kitai is attacked by the Ursa in a cave inside the mountain, there is a sequence with an interesting cross-cutting architecture. It may seem like a standard parallel-running of two trajectories, but they meaningfully reflect the intertwining of the two characters. There have been few cross-cutting situations in Shyamalan’s work, until a magnificent example just arrived in Split. The way the two parallels mirror each other in discreet fashion is reminiscent of the vast cross-cutting sequence in Interstellar.
The following slide show depicts the sequence. There is a subterranean lake where Kitai will drown if he cannot find a way out. As he falls into the water, there is a cut to the wreck, where Father’s medical crisis is worsening, and Father mirrors his son’s fall by keeling over in his seat. But Kitai spots a light and swims towards it, which “causes” Father to come to again. He straightens up slightly, which coincides with Kitai bursting out of the water.
With the air forced out of Kitai, landing him on an existential minimum, three avenues now come together. The flashback of Senshi’s death that is replaying, this fourth time ends in an epiphany. After this we hear Father reciting the Ranger ritual: “Root yourself in this present moment now. Sight, sound, smell. What do you feel?”. For the first time Kitai is able to use it to the full. Also, he hears Father’s voice clearly and overwhelmingly in his mind, rather than the implied long-distance “mind-reading” of Father’s instructions emitted from the wreck. And then there is a third thing:
All three of them – Kitai working through his grief in his epiphany, Father reciting the ritual, Senshi setting him free – work together to create resolution. Kitai is lying on his back gazing up into the heavens, and this slide show unfolds the scene:
The lyrical view of the snow is encroached upon by the Ursa – but the monster is seen with a tranquillity as if it were as unthreatening and calming as the snow. This mixture of the beautiful and the hideous recalls Father’s monologue about his first ghosting: “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.” The camera is gently closing in on Kitai into an extreme close-up – the shadow falling over his face is a mini-metaphor indicating how he is now invisible to the Ursa – and after some shots showing how the monster just keeps on walking, the reverse camera movement happens, as gently. The camera performs a heartbeat, in slow transcendence, almost suspended in time.
Let us wrap up this chapter by identifying the closure of some structural arcs. The ritual of the grounding that was all-important to Kitai in the climax was also recited for him as soon as he stepped out of the spaceship and immediately went into a panic.
The Last Airbender and After Earth can fruitfully be seen as companion films. On the production level there were many firsts. As many have pointed out, this is Shyamalan training-on-the-job at making blockbusters. While The Sixth Sense cost 40 million, the next four were within 60-72 million and The Happening was delivered for 48. These two, however, cost 150 and 130 million respectively.
Not only did they entail more incident-filled, special-effects-heavy scenarios in which his long-take-tending, deliberately paced storytelling style and particular talent for idiosyncratic mood pieces could not reign. (With an average shot length of 6.8 for Airbender and 4.99 for Earth, they were far below the early works and at the time his two films with the fastest cutting rate.) But for the first time the original ideas behind them were not his own and furthermore, he lacked total artistic control (that had already started to wane with The Happening). So The Last Airbender were post-converted to 3D against his will (some production background here) and Will Smith came up with the After Earth story and ultimately called the shots. Another personal connection was severed, as the first films not taking place in or around his hometown of Philadelphia.
Both films were cut rather severely compared to the original concepts, and they suffer (perhaps because of that) from an unrhythmic, somewhat awkward feel in early parts. Although far from uniformly mediocre, it is conceivable that these rocky beginnings (45 minutes for The Last Airbender, 30 minutes for After Earth) might have caused audiences (and not a few critics) to give up on the films and thus unable to fully appreciate them when they hit their stride.
Both received extremely hostile reviews (here and here, although this was par for the course at this stage) and are his only works with the ignominy of having a current IMDb score down in the fours (4.2 and 4.9). They are both considered flops, although world-wide they earned 319 million (131 domestic and 187 foreign) and 243 million (60 domestic and 183 foreign) respectively. Although with heavy promotion added in, the financial result could not have been that bad. But it must have been very disappointing for a major star like Smith to have earned so little in the US. (All of the figures in this paragraph are from www.boxofficemojo.com. Figures per film and their detailed background can easily be accessed via this link.)
There are many other links, however. Both are in Cinemascope, which until the advent of Split had only been used in Unbreakable. The presence of explanatory voice-overs is another first: in The Last Airbender the purpose is to paper over cut scenes, in After Earth it is only present in the beginning when the protagonist is filling us in on the background to the state of humankind a thousand years into the future.
In both films the plots unfold in game-like environments where a set of rules are imposed on the characters, shaping their behaviour and goals. Both are taking place on an Earth that is totally transformed. The heroes realise their potential in a climax of monumental transcendence to soaring film music. The films featured very young and inexperienced lead actors: Noah Ringer was 13 and Jaden Smith 15 at the time of release. Ringer had no acting experience and has hardly acted since; Smith had an undemanding lead in Karate Kid (Harald Zwart, 2010) behind him but was later praised for his role in the TV series The Get Down (2016-17). Both have clear limitations in their dialogue delivery but are athletic and very good at the physical parts.
There are specific connections as well. Protagonists bear similar names (Katara, Kitai). Central characters are part of the military. The relationship between the Fire Lord and Prince Zuko in The Last Airbender mirrors the father-son relationship in After Earth, in that there is a daughter who is the parent’s clear favourite. The harmony achieved through the “dance” of waterbending between Aang and Kitara could be compared to the mental far-distance alignment between father and son in After Earth. Due to the rather severe cuts both films were subjected to, there is a peculiar echo through bad continuity errors with fetishised objects: for considerable periods of time, without explanation, Kitara is seen without her necklace, and Kitai without his cutlass.
The Fire Nation’s devastation of the other tribes, powerless against “huge machines made of metal”, and its disastrous killing of the Moon Spirit unbalancing the world completely, are not unlike humankind’s destruction of Earth in the later film. The arrival of the Fire Nation warships is, tellingly for the ecological undercurrent, announced by a pollutant, the “black snow”. Otis Wheeler in this 2013 roundtable discussion points out that “like Aang in The Last Airbender, [Kitai of After Earth] reaches his full potential by letting his feelings flow like water; only by letting them out can he control them.” There is even a specific echo through the device of repeating the advice of an authority figure through a voice-overed memory just before the hero’s spiritual breakthrough: In The Last Airbender it is Master Pakku’s “Water teaches us acceptance. Let your emotions flow like water.” In After Earth it is Kitai’s father saying, “Root yourself in this present moment now. Sight, sound, smell. What do you feel?”
There are also polar opposites: in great contrast to the machines and metal ships of the Fire Nation, everything seems to be organic in After Earth – a lesson learned from the disaster – for example spaceships seem to be grown. Furthermore, there are a lot of embraces and touching in After Earth. It is tempting to see this in the light of the earlier film, where Aang after having saved the world throws himself spontaneously at Katara:
Moments later, however, in The Last Airbender Aang finally accepts his status as the Avatar and consequently bids farewell to having a family and even companionship with others on an equal footing. After Earth, interestingly, goes in the opposite direction, since both the boy and his father finally decide to leave the special status of military life – the boy thus eschewing his newly acquired ability of ghosting – for a quieter life with his mother. They have in common, however, the fact that they are reluctant heroes and at the end do not rejoice at their success. (Kitai in After Earth does feel satisfaction, of course, but the opportunity to embrace his father counts more than military success.)
(For a summary of how After Earth fits into the director’s common themes, motifs, trademarks, statistics and so on, look here.)
To The Sixth Sense:
Although much more tension-filled, the scene on the spaceship where Kitai is stepping towards the contained Ursa goaded on by the diabolical Ranger is reminiscent of the first game in The Sixth Sense, where Cole shall take a step forward each time Malcolm can guess what he is thinking. The ritualised nature of the scenes, the child/adult situation, and the methodical, rigorous switching between a limited set of camera positions are other similarities. (The naming of the technique of “ghosting” in After Earth of course recalls the earlier film’s subject matter.)
In a film that is, after all, far from as formally adventurous as his early works, this is one of the best, and very Shyamalanian, visual ideas in After Earth. (The scene even ends with one of his most typical flourishes, the camera closing in very discretely, for no discernible narrative reason.) After a close-up of the boy as he comes to after the crash, the camera switches to this situation, with a powerful sense of disorientation and “making strange”. At regular intervals a plastic curtain, placed just before the lens, is obscuring the view. The last three screenshots in the above series, at a slightly lower position, reveals the cause. Meant to maintain a breathable atmosphere inside the wreck, the curtain cannot seal because there is a dead body blocking it, making the curtain try to close again and again. The laconic, mechanical and uncaring motion just adds to the strangeness of the situation. (This small segment is held for 50 seconds, over three different shots.)
The wreck of the spaceship also recalls the earlier film, which featured both a train and a car wreck.
The story Father tells Kitai about his first ghosting is reminiscent of another father’s monologue, the “Are you the kind who sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky?” scene in Signs, also that addressed to a close family member and placed at approximately mid-point in the films.
In the climax it is revealed what Senshi told Kitai on the raft (“You’re still in that box. It’s time to come out.”). That statement’s power of resolution, given in flashback at the moment of a crisis, is reminiscent of Graham’s dying wife’s last words in Signs (“Tell him to see. And tell Merrill to swing away.”), which give him the idea how to defeat the aliens.
“You must fire the beacon from the peak of that mountain,” Father says and the boy looks up into air, from where the aliens in Signs came. The score by James Newton Howard here becomes infused with a rhythmic high-pitched motif that seems to reference the earlier film, evoking associations to something that is beckoning.
(We have already talked about the possible “shadow/knife connection“.)
To The Village:
The Village provides the most fertile common ground with After Earth. Like Lucius in The Village the father in After Earth knows no fear. Their closest ones, the protagonists of both films, have a severe handicap (blindness, a crippling fear), and short on experience, they have to traverse an unknown forest with a lurking, unspeakably murderous monster, targeting them specifically. In After Earth the stakes are raised by an extremely hostile general environment.
Like Ivy tricked the man-creature of The Village to fall to its death into a pit, Kitai tricks a predator to fall to its death through a weak point in the bird’s nest. The chasm by the plateau of the climax of After Earth recalls the pit in the earlier film, further underlined by the Ursa’s final attempt to crawl over the edge, to take Kitai with it into death.
The issues of the origins of fear and the mastering of it are of prime importance in both films. Lucius’s speech to the elders of The Village states: “Creatures can sense emotion and fear,” which is the prime operating principle of both “Those We Don’t Speak Of” (will let a fearless person pass through) and the Ursa (cannot sense a fearless person). Furthermore, both Ivy of The Village and the Ursa are blind.
To Lady in the Water:
As pointed out by Hendy Bicaise in a French web article (translated into English here) the giant bird can be said to recall the “Great Eatlon”, “mythical eagle and benefactor of the Lady in the Water” and it is again saving the mission of a young person. Also, Father’s monologue about his first ghosting can be seen as a bedtime story, since it seems to have a calming effect on the boy and he goes to sleep just after. One can imagine that this is a story Father has told Kitai many times during childhood.
To The Happening:
In both films nature has become a threat to mankind, but in the later film the disaster has gone global. In both films the action is also moving from areas of civilisation into a natural environment. The cold closing in on Kitai in the scene where he is about to freeze to death can be compared to the threat from the wind in the earlier film. When the couple in The Happening reach their highest point of despair at the climax, they stop being afraid and walk right out into the disaster area outside the house, in a parallel to Kitai becoming invisible to the Ursa when he overcomes his fear.
To The Visit:
The all-important found-footage aspect of the later film can be traced back to the father’s views in After Earth, from cameras on the front of Kitai’s suit and his backpack. The film also contains external shots of Kitai when his backpack is lying on the ground, a common technique to increase coverage in found-footage films. (As Kitai enters the medical ward at the end of After Earth, footage of him killing the Ursa is playing on a monitor in the room.)
The ferocity of the Ursa and the Beast is an obvious similarity. The growling of the Ursa as it senses Kitai’s fear when he approaches its cage in the restricted area of the spaceship is similar to the growling of the Beast in Split, both in “person” and through various ill-boding sound effects on the soundtrack. Soft focus is employed to denote reduced consciousness, when Kitai is about to freeze to death and Dr. Fletcher wakes up after having been chloroformed (a widely used device though).
Cole in The Sixth Sense was often connected to historic times, but Shyamalan also likes to look further back. Like the films in the above montage, After Earth casts the net back to far ages, as Kitai stumbles upon some cave paintings.
Although After Earth represents a difficult period where M. Night Shyamalan is wrestling with new and unfamiliar limitations, it is still a film made with great care. Rather than being an object of ridicule, it seems on the whole like a valuable entry in the director’s filmography.
I do not subscribe to this strange idea that perceived plot holes make it impossible to believe anything you see on the screen. I like a fictional universe to be consistent and well thought out, and plotting is an aspect of craft like everything else, but I don’t believe in film as a “reality” but a representation of an idea, metaphor or fable. My experience of artistic quality tends to be local. I respond to the specifics of each scene: honesty and expressiveness of acting, elegance and intelligence of staging, aesthetics and precision of visuals, and so on.
If I see a musical I don’t particularly enjoy but suddenly Judy Garland comes on to sing a fantastic song, the quality of that scene should not be affected by the experience so far, and certainly not if there was a plot hole twenty minutes ago. And if I return to the film, and in the meantime have discovered there are plenty of plot holes, does that suddenly make Judy sing worse, reduce the artistry of the number’s staging, or make the lyrics less resonant?
This is why I can enjoy After Earth on a scene-by-scene basis if those scenes merit it. It seems to me that the rocky early parts of this film (and The Last Airbender) made audiences tune out so they were unable to appreciate their later, very real qualities.
But since plotting is part of craft, here goes:
- Why don’t the Rangers have offensive weapons? When Kitai finds the cutlass at the tail, the compartment is marked as a defensive weapon. Could this mean that the Ranger Corps has an ethical rule that only such weapons are allowed? Their world seems heavily based on organic material (see the insides of the space ships, for example) so maybe this is a wiser version of humanity? Or was this particular mission of a nature that did not require such weapons? But surely the Ursa is highly dangerous if it should escape. We also see soldiers utilising something that looks like ray guns against the enemy in the summary of the Nova Prime backstory. The answer to all this is of course that the creators did not want Kitai to have too powerful weapons at his disposal on his trek.
- By the way, was it really not possible for this civilisation to use other ways than fearlessness to become invisible to the Ursa, something along the lines of the gel humans smear on themselves to avoid being sniffed out by the zombies in The Girl with All the Gifts (Colm McCarthy, 2016). We also see that the Ursa could not smell little Kitai’s fear when he was enclosed in the box, so why could humans not fight them using protective shielding or attack from inside tanks? Would it not have been more efficient to have Ursas that were not blind, by the way? These two questions, however, are the type of curmudgeonly protest that would have prohibited this kind of story in the first place.
- Why did the father not strap himself in before calming down his son since the ship was in danger of blowing apart? One might suspect that the need for a dramatic visual event, the explosion that blew him away, trumped verisimilitude. On the other hand, the unusual situation of his son being present and in danger could have upset his equilibrium and sense of caution. In the scene on the bridge just before we saw his exceptional calm under duress. The answer, however, is that Father is just taking some time to calm Kitai in-between the task of securing the ship. All the other Rangers are up and about and we see some of them being busy repairing breaches of the hull. (It is perhaps a bit strange that everyone does not strap in eventually since the ship seems to be quite close to a tough landing.) On a purely dramatic level, the story needs the son to wake up all alone and also Father to be incapacitated. It is unlikely that he would have become so badly injured had he been strapped in.
- “Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans,” the father says. How can this have happened only over a few decades, before humanity left Earth? Here one must assume a (very unscientific) Gaia-like concept of the whole planet turning against us, along the lines of the sudden attacks of The Happening. But why is this hostility maintained a thousand years later? Hard to explain, we must just assume that it planet liked it that way. Maybe Father did not mean it literally, just that the Earth had become a fantastically dangerous place?
- But this Earth does not feel that dangerous? On the last day of the trek, for example, between having been saved by the bird and reaching the tail section, there are no obstacles. And earlier, he could lie still for a long time, paralysed, a perfect opportunity for any amount of the supposedly bloodthirsty animals. It is also a bit strange that the film does not portray the paralysis situation with any kind of suspense. He can also sail down the river, asleep, without any problems.
- How can the first beacon have been destroyed inside the packet, where it was also stored inside a compartment of the space ship? A direct hit from heavy equipment, perhaps. But this future civilisation is generally not good at protecting stuff: this first beacon and two breathing fluid vials are ruined during the trek (even while inside the backpack). It is a bit hard to see whether the communicator is destroyed or just lost, but there is the mid-air collision with the bird to account for that. We immediately see its signal being broken up on Father’s console.
- Apropos losing things: (as also pointed out as an IMDb goof) Kitai’s cutlass disappears between shots, due to an especially brutal cut of a scene (only explanation possible). This is the reason he retrieves a cutlass as his first action when he reaches the tail. I remember being puzzled by that on first viewing, I thought this maybe was a more advanced model he was happy to have against the Ursa, for it is not that easy to see it was gone before (he could always carry it, when it is not strapped to his back). The loss of the cutlass is not necessarily a continuity error, because he could have (and must have) lost it in-between shots, but it is extremely untidy.
- Why cannot Father redirect the probes to find the boy after communications are cut off? From the time of waking up in the bird’s nest until seeking refuge for the night in the cave, there is probably only a short while. But for the next day, the boy is sailing down the river in broad daylight, and the day after that he is also moving about. The answer seems to be quite simple. Kitai may have been unconscious for a while in the nest, where the probes cannot see him. Later, we see Father using the probes to look for the boy, at the time Kitai is at the ancient dam. During the night, when Kitai is in the cave, Father concludes that Kitai has been lost and he files a message in the log telling his wife that. Until Father is woken up by the renewed communication from the tail section he has probably been unconscious most of the time. Perhaps it is a bit strange that the probes could not have been programmed to look for Kitai on their own. Further along these lines, how was Father able to summon up an underground map of the mountain Kitai is about to climb? Well, this mapping could have been done right at the start. We see a large holographic map of the area inside the space ship when Father is briefing Kitai for the journey, but that is before the probes were deployed. It is unclear how these maps were made.
- How did the boy end up in the bird’s nest? Here I thought for a long time that he had accidentally fallen through the roof. But that is a highly improbable coincidence. But here the answer is simple: the bird snatched him in the air during their collision and transported him there, as food. (As if to underpin that, we see one hatchling eat meat from a small carcass.)
- Kitai’s suit sensors can only detect movement, so it is not an error (given as an IMDb goof) that at first only one ape turns up on Father’s virtual map. The other red spots appear only when the first ape is summoning them and they start to move.
- When the Ursa, still partly stuck in the shaft, grabs the boy on the plateau, why does it seem to just throw him away instead of killing him? This can be easy to overlook because it happens in long shot, but the Ursa is definitely trying to kill him, because it first slams him into the mountainside (see slide show below), and then it throws him away. (Or does it just lose its grip? Or did it think he was dead?) One wonders why it does not just bite him – maybe it has no teeth? – but it follows the same pattern as with Kitai’s sister during the flashback: she is first slammed into the wall (and then killed by impalement).
- During Kitai’s first night in a hot spot, why does it not snow rather than rain since the planet is supposed to be frozen? Or is it coming down as snow but it is so hot around the spot that it melts? Before the scene, in the distance we see heavy storm clouds and lightning. It is possibly much hotter further up in the atmosphere and it will come down as rain? That the rain could happen before it gets really cold is impossible because it is dark already, and when he later almost freezes to death it is still daylight. This is a tricky one.
- IMDb lists this as a goof: “When Kitai starts running up the volcano through the bushes to set off the beacon, the shadow of a moving camera crane appears in the lower screen.” I can see no such thing.
- Someone has complained that in the final battle with the Ursa, the boy leaps on to it like a superhuman. But it only looks like this because the film is speeded up, a fairly common device in action scenes, which are not particularly realistic anyway. Also with his breakthrough, who can say what forces were unleashed in him?
- How can the last shot from the backpack camera be possible, since it must be lying on the ground, and we have not seen him take it off? The backpack must have fallen off when the Ursa slammed him into the mountainside. This explains why he survived, for in the fourth and last shot of the slide show above he seems to hit with his back first and the backpack probably saved his life. and threw him. It seems there is a small continuity error, however, when he turns to look at the beacon after the Ursa is dead, and he seems to have the backpack on in that shot (see below).