If there is one thing that great science fiction writers have learned to do over the years, it is to reference past great science fiction without becoming a slave to those references. In his new action scifi flick, After Earth, director M. Night Shyamalan does just that.
When interstellar Ranger, Cypher Raige (Will Smith) gives his son Kitai ( Jaden Smith) the sage counsel, “Danger is real; Fear is a choice,” my mind immediately went back to author Frank Herbert’s classic, Dune.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
In After Earth, Cypher and his son are the the only survivors of a horrific crash landing. Cypher is critically injured, and Kitai, an untested youth, is their only hope of rescue. But the beautifully restore, yet lethally hostile future Earth, is no place for a novice who has not learned to control his emotions. If Kitai fails, both father and son will die.
After Earth is the epitome of the Hero’s Journey. If you don’t understand the Hero’s Journey as a literary device…well, I could explain, but that would take too long. I’ll sum up. No, that would take too long as well. Suffice it to say it is classic storytelling at its best.
I suspect After Earth will catch a lot of flack. It is, after all, directed by Shyamalan, and the M. Night haters are gonna hate. There are plenty of people who haven’t forgiven him for stinkers like The Last Airbender and The Happening (myself among them). But I liked After Earth. A lot. Just not for the reasons you might expect.
One of the major problems with Shyamalan’s movies is the way they are promoted. The Village was marketed as a terrifying supernatural thriller. It wasn’t. It was a literary character study. So audiences came away feeling cheated. It was a bait and switch. It’s the same with After Earth. On the surface its a big budget summer scifi blockbuster. But it’s not. Yes, it’s set in the future and there are spaceships and cool gadgets and gruesome monsters. But that’s not what the movie is about.
Oh, and it’s not a Will Smith movie either. Yes, Will definitely plays a major role in the film, but make no mistake, this is a Jaden Smith movie, and the kid actually has the chops to pull it off. Expect big things from this young man in the coming days.
No, After Earth is not a scifi flick or a summer blockbuster. It is a coming of age story. It’s about the tenuous, frustrating and overpowering relationship between fathers and sons. It’s about a boy’s hunger for his father’s approval, and a father’s desire to see his son become a man of courage, character and integrity. It’s about growing up, and letting go. It’s about facing your fears when everything is on the line.
And it’s about a still small voice in the back of your head, when every distraction imaginable is swirling around you, that says, ‘Son, take a knee. Center yourself.’