Sunday, 30 June 2013

Film Ramble: After Earth

I feel like I should say something nice about After Earth.  Or at least that someone should.  Because I think it's one of the better science fiction films I've seen of late, and yet there it is on Rotten Tomatoes, sitting at time of writing with a measly 11%.  What's with that?

So if he's stranded on Earth, what's that in the background?
I have some theories.  The critical knives have been kept sharp for Shyamalan for years - justifiably so on occasions, it has to be said - and it's hard to imagine what he could do now to assuage some of his haters beyond giving up film-making once and for all.  Equally, it's hard not to view Jaden Smith's casting in a film conceived, produced by and starring his dad as a blatant bit of Hollywood nepotism.

It's tricky to argue that second one, though Smith Jr is hardly as bad as some reviewers have made out.  Shyamalan, though, I'm happy to defend.  He's always intrigued me, both as a director and as a writer: in an industry defined by formula, he makes artistic choices that I don't always agree with, but that constantly surprise.  One early example from After Earth is a major action sequence filmed as reaction shot: Will Smith's heroic general Cypher Raige* stares impassively as a potentially deadly asteroid storm hammers the ship that carries him and his son Kitai.  If this was Michael Bay, there'd be retina-burning explosions, bodies flying, meteoric point of view shots.  Shyamalan gives us little of that: he fills half his frame with Smith's face and keeps it there.  And as the scene continues, as Cypher impassively confronts death, it becomes more and more apparent that this isn't just bravery ... there's something wrong with this guy.  He may be fearless, and that's handy when you happen to be fighting an alien race that hunts by fear, but he's also pretty damn screwed up.

It's a brave artistic choice to substitute a character moment for thrills; one that will lose some viewers early on, but also one that pays dividends as After Earth progresses.  Both of its protagonists, father and son, are reeling from emotional tragedy: the death of Kitai's sister at the stabby claws of one of those aforementioned aliens, which each failed in their own way to stop.  Neither of them are dealing with it too well, either.  Cypher has become the emotional vacuum that his name suggests, while Kitai is in equal parts trying to become his father and despising him for failing the family.  Where in a lesser film this sort of back story might be window dressing, in After Earth it's integral, and the damage these characters have endured is approached with respect.

It's easy to view the action that forms the bulk of the film - wherein Kitai treks across a hostile, long-abandoned future Earth while his injured father stays behind and instructs him by remote - as traditional Hollywood father / son bonding. They hang out, argue, eventually each learn something and mutual tolerance ensues. But what Shyamalan and co-screenwriter Gary Whitta do is ultimately more satisfying than that.  In the wild, Kitai is as separated from his father by technology as he is emotionally, their flawed technological dependency becoming a deft metaphor for their fractured relationship.  Each has a perspective the other lacks and neither sees the whole picture, as much as they may believe they do.  Blind spots lead to small deceptions that have devastating consequences.  As the dangers worsen, both technology and communication fail them altogether.  Kitai finds himself alone, facing the same alien threat that his father once did.  He knows dad survived, and he knows what it did to him.  Is that a path he really wants to follow?

And that's the crux of After Earth: not so much father / son bonding as a meditation on parenthood itself, and of what such a relationship demands of both parties.  How do you keep your kids safe without dooming them to making the same mistakes that you've made?  Is it possible to pass on the benefits of experience without inflicting the wounds that taught it in the first place?  What do you do when you realize your parents aren't perfect, that maybe not everything they've told you is right, and how are you meant to know what to keep and what to leave?  Being stranded on a deadly future Earth is tough, but so is outgrowing adolescence, and so is realizing you're kind of screwed up and learning to trust your son - and for my money it's to After Earth's credit that it gives all of those problems equal weight.

Which isn't to say that After Earth is without its flaws, by any means.  Its pacing is off in places, particularly towards the start, parts of it flat out don't work, and many will find its core man-against-the-wilds story simple and old-fashioned, as it undoubtedly is.  I enjoyed both the central performances and Shyamalan's methodical, uncluttered direction, but I can understand why many won't.  Still, to my mind, it's at least a movie that's genuinely about stuff, when so often theme is just another tick box on the screenwriter's list.  And - perhaps the main reason I'm championing it here - it's also great fun as science fiction, with a pleasing mix of the borderline plausible, such as the subtle ways in which Earth's environment and fauna have developed in the absence of humanity, and the endearingly mad.  I mean, bamboo spaceships, anyone?  Frankly, if nothing else I've said here is enough to convince you that After Earth might be worth a roll then that right there should do it.

* One thing I won't ever be trying to defend is Shyamalan's character naming.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis - true, I found it a bit dull, but I'm now wondering whether it's because I was expecting Hollywood tropes to go along with the Hollywood budget and stars, but if I was expecting an independent film or an art house film I would have approached it differently. A very thought-provoking review, thank you.