(spoilers for a movie without surprises)
After Earth is a movie that earns my respect for being incredibly bad. A $120 million budget, a big name star and a script revised many times by some big names (that don’t appear in the credits), and this movie still looks and sounds like no one knows what they’re doing. It’s an amateurish, convoluted and silly attempt of pretending to be a movie. It is incoherent in its excuse for a plot, ridiculous in coming up with a future world where nothing is practical and delivers a message that is incredibly dangerous and stupid. I know, if you just squint a little, this might look like a harmless sci-fi movie, but if you really look at it, it is a total mess that made me laugh out loud several times. And let’s not even talk about the (non-existent) acting or that it’s directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
I’ve heard stories of Earth, a paradise until we destroyed it. The founding of the United Ranger Corps, 1,000 years ago, was a global military effort, an evacuation of Earth. The rangers would lead the settlement of mankind’s new home, Nova Prime. But we were not alone. The aliens released the Ursa, monsters, bred to kill humans. Technically blind, the Ursa sees humans based on the pheromones we secrete when frightened. They literally smell our fear. Humankind was again in danger of extinction and again turned to the rangers for the answer. And that answer came in the form of the Prime commander Cypher Raige, the original ghost. He is believed to be so completely free of fear that to an Ursa he is invisible. This phenomenon is known as ‘ghosting.’
This opening monologue happens within the first two minutes of the movie. It is some of the laziest exposition I have ever seen, especially considering all the terminology it throws at us and how little is actually explained here (Who is releasing the Ursa? There is really just one single guy able to defeat them? Ghosting?). Don’t expect much more details later, this information dump is supposed to serve us for the rest of the movie. But beyond this example of terrible writing, let’s look at the image of humanity this movie tries to evoke. The first sentence of the movie blames us for being destructive (because we’re inherently flawed), but then shows us mankind as really superior and technically super efficient. Of course, it’s never made clear how or why we have changed and why Nova Prime was destroyed in a similar way, especially since everything we see there looks like exactly the same cultural principles are applied. Shyamalan often has this contradictory vision of humans being really bad, but still worth saving.
The movie drives this idea of humans as something dangerous beyond any reasonable limits. When our heroes Cypher and Kitay (Will and Jaden Smith) crash-land on Earth and Kitay is send on his mission to save them, he has to learn that Earth has changed in the last 1,000 years. How? Well, his father explains
This is a class-1-quarantine planet, everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans.
Think about that, just for a second. The movie wants to tell us that humans have turned Earth uninhabitable (okay, that’s easy to accept), so humanity leaves Earth and not only has evolution accelerated in an unprecedented way, so that animals changed into something new but they adapted to something that wasn’t there anymore. Humans are so evil that animals decided to take revenge on them, even after 1,000 years. Amazing. To prove this scientific miracle, Kitay is attacked by baboons, giant birds, snakes and some kind of tiger-lion-hyena-mashup.
In what is probably the most talked about scene in the movie, Kitay is attacked by a giant bird which brings him into his nest, presumably to feed him to its bird babies, which is then attacked by the Tigerlionhyenas. Kitay helps fighting them off, but all the babies are killed, so of course the bird then decides to save Kitay by sacrificing himself. Humans are evil, so that all wildlife conspires to attack it, but then again they are worth saving, even by giving your own life! (see most of these ideas, including a rescue bird in Lady in the Water)
Let’s look at the other, more disturbing, aspect of this movie, the father-son relationship. The movie establishes in its opening monologue that Cypher is successful because he has no fear. We learn pretty fast that Cypher in fact has no emotions at all. He never moves a facial muscle, shows no love to either his wife or his son and stays robotic till the end of the movie. He doesn’t change and the movie makes clear that he is a hero for it. He does not discover his emotional side over the course of the film, there is no journey, he is lifeless and somewhat creepy all the way through.
Kitay, his son, on the hand, is always anxious, disturbed, insecure. This is not portrayed as something positive. When he reacts emotionally, he gets into trouble, like provoking the baboon attack or, and here we go now, feeling responsible for his sister’s death. She was attacked by an Ursa in their home and she put him into some kind of glass terrarium from where he watched her being slaughtered. Understandably, this has traumatized him for the rest of his life. It also made him feel resentment towards his father, the super-soldier, who was absent and therefore somewhat responsible. His father on the other side blames him for his sister’s death. Kitay was about 6 when it happened, but his father seems to think that he could have done something, even if that would have meant being killed himself. The movie seems to agree as Kitay is told repeatedly by his father and through visions of his dead sister that he just needs to leave his trauma behind. No one is helping him with that and the answer lies not in processing his feelings by talking about it, but by ignoring them. See, his father knows only one way of surviving, through ignoring your feelings and following orders. “This is an order” must be Will Smith’s most uttered line this film. And, as he explains to his son and as the promotional material of the film repeats, Fear Is a Choice. Think about that, a six-year-old boy is supposed to ignore his fears, ignore that he has been abandoned by his father, that feels responsible for his sister’s death and has to decide not to be scared. Or, to take it a step further, not to feel. Ignore your feelings, follow the rules, that’s what the movie is selling as a mantra. This family really has the wrong last name.
In the end, the movie proves its own thesis by allowing Kitay to become a hero after all and killing the Ursa. It tries to sell it in a way that he “becomes one with the moment”, but what he really has to do is to get rid of any feelings. He becomes like his father, emotionless, cold, detached, a ghost if you like (so that this term does make sense in the end). Listen to your parents, ignore your instincts, follow orders. Those are some of the most dangerous memes our culture is forcing upon us for centuries and this movie goes all the way back to all those stories and guides that tells parents to not listen to their babies’ cries and to be the authority at all times, to shape their kids upon their own image. After Earth is bad for many technical and creative reasons, but its ideology is repulsive and dangerous.