“I’ve heard stories of Earth, a paradise before we destroyed it.” So murmurs Kitai (Jaden Smith) over archival clips of rising floodwaters and roaring wildfires, belching smokestacks and rampaging tornadoes. Yes, these would be the ways we destroyed it, and yes, this would be the introduction for After Earth.
And yes, M. Night Shyamalan’s new film is obvious and unoriginal, a science fictional meditation on excess by way of exceptionalism, loss by way of triumph. And what better way to wrap up all this conventional mush than in a father-son melodrama, with Kitai feeling desperate to please his dad, the revered general Cypher (Will Smith). How is it, you may wonder, that those humans who left behind the planet they destroyed 1,000 years ago yet revere a general, as, you know, you might imagine that destroying the planet might have given the population some pause in such reverence? Well, he’s just awesome, that’s how, introduced in a brief scene—painfully narrated by the son—where he demonstrates “ghosting,” the technique by which special humans become invisible to their most fearsome enemies, creatures called Ursas who can only locate and attack their human prey when they smell their fear. “Literally,” offers Kitai in voiceover, the monsters smell human fear and so, “literally,” fear is fatal.
At this point, just a few minutes into After Earth, you’re grappling with a couple of fears. One, you’re about to watch a film that begins with over-narration, the sort that uses the word “literally” unnecessarily and describes a Road Warrior-ish post-apocalypse that’s so familiar it doesn’t need even 20 seconds of narration. Two, Kitai and everyone else with a speaking part uses a dreadfully artificial, inconsistent, and distracting accent, perhaps the verbal version of designating the future via formfitting outfits or wide-windowed homes built high in the sky (both of which appear here, too). And three, oh three, you’re watching the Smiths together again, imparting yet another life lesson for the rest of us.
That lesson here takes the form of a vision quest, performed by the initially underachieving Kitai under lots of directions from the overbearing Cypher. It has a backstory, delivered in repetitive flashbacks, in which their beloved sister/daughter Senshi (Zoë Isabella Kravitz) is brutally killed by a shadowy Ursa. This loss moves father and son to resent each other for their ostensible failures, as now-guilt-ridden dad was away at work as a general saving the human race, and now perpetually devastated Kitai was a child witness. It has a crisis to start it, when mother/wife Faia (Sophie Okonedo) suggests they spend some time together, a seemingly good idea that leaves them the sole survivors of a spaceship crash, dependent on each other for survival. And it has a fateful, odious, and titular location, which is to say, earth.
While Cypher remains in the broken piece of ship with two broken legs, Kitai goes forth through the wilds of earth—mountains, cold, giant birds, big snakes, packs of baboon-like killer monkeys—in order to reach the other piece of ship, where he will find a beacon to set off and so ensure their rescue. Cypher impresses on the boy the urgency and dead seriousness of the mission, in language and affect that are part military style bullying, part harsh patriarch, and part Michael Jordan, in the sense that, because he is so very good at what he does, Cypher has little understanding of people who are not close to being so good. He’s impatient, frustrated, and exacting, though he occasionally recalls—again, in overstating flashbacks—words of nurturing wisdom from the beguilingly beigey-costumed, soft-filtered, best-wife-and-mom-ever, Faia, so that you know that he knows he’s being mean.
The inevitable reconciliation follows a series of unrelated episodes that test Kitai, encounters with weather and monsters. These while dad monitors from the piece of ship, while also noting his own failing body (this future provides all kinds of surveillance technology, less that helps to heal broken bodies (given Cypher’s line of work, and the broadly conceived and universe-dominating military enterprise he represents, you might have guessed that this latter bit would have been a priority over the past 1000 years, but oh well). All of these tests are cursory, with dad’s instructions ranging from “Take a knee, cadet!” to “Just run!, though on occasion Cypher lets slip a not-quite officious comment that makes you think he’s got a bit of Fresh Prince in him yet, as when, noting his son’s misery when he is nearly dead from a paralyzing toxin, dad observes, “It sucks.”
Such cheap joking doesn’t quite sustain the father and son’s evolving relationship, but it serves as the sort of shorthand, the sort to which this movie resorts instead of, say, questions over responsibility for the mucked up earth, or even about utterly ancient gender role expectations, you know, 1000 years from now!
As the film cuts back and forth between father and son, each thinks about the lost sister and the wise mom, these visions helping the boys to contemplate the future they may or may not have. In fact, this idea of the future is the film’s one good one. Cypher describes it in relation to fear, that reaction that will “literally” kill you. As he puts it, while danger is “very real,” fear is not, existing “in thoughts of the future,” anticipation of a moment not yet occurred, an event that hasn’t happened.
In this figuring, Cypher might seem to live in a present, though of course, he’s stuck in a past as much as his traumatized son. In this context, After Earth might be read as a lengthy, mostly incoherent rattling on about PTSD, where the initiating trauma might be located in a clearly delineated past and a release might be found in an embrace of a moment beyond that, not to mention a big hug from dad. Time and trauma hardly work that way, but in this after world, projected into a future that Cypher warns against imagining, wouldn’t it be grand if they did?