If you've seen any of M. Night Shyamalan's previous films, you know he likes to take the mundane and turn it into the epic and mythological. His films are about seemingly average, ordinary people who end up discovering they can do extraordinary things. When put into critical situations, they discover their faults become assets. In Unbreakable a man who works as a security guard discovers he is actually a superhero. In Signs, we find out a boy's asthma saves his life because it protects his lungs from breathing in toxic air. In Lady in the Water, an apartment complex maintenance man and the washouts that live there all realize they are part of a great story, where each of them has a role to play. And this trend continues in After Earth, starring Will and Jaden Smith, where we learn fear is just a story we tell ourselves.
After Earth is a science fiction movie, but like most good science fiction, it uses its alternate world to teach us something about our current world. Kitai (Jaden Smith) is a cadet in training, but it's hard for him to live under the shadow of his father, who is the hero of his people, General Cypher Raige (Will Smith). General Raige was the first person to discover "ghosting"--appearing invisible to the ursa, who find and track humans by the scent of their fear. By mastering his fear, he was able to hide from the ursa and conquer his enemy. It's not important really to understand what ursa are and or why they are a problem. We know they are the enemy to this people.
Kitai isn't quite there yet. He does feel fear. He feels fear that he doesn't measure up to his father's expectations. He works hard in his cadet training, but on the field he falls apart and can't handle the pressure. He doesn't pass the training and must go home to tell his father, General Raige, the news. The boy's mother, played sweetly by Sophie Okonedo, thinks the men need a father-son bonding trip, and asks Cypher to spend more time with their son. Cypher decides to take Kitai on a simple trip with him, where the plot rises dramatically.
After a crash landing on Earth, which has evolved into a planet that is deadly to humans, there are only two survivors: Cypher and Kitai. The distress signal is broken, and the emergency one is in the tail of the ship, which is a good distance away. With Cypher's legs broken, it is up to Kitai to travel to the tail of the plane and signal for help with the alternate beacon. Of course, on the way, he will encounter much resistance by the planet's residents and natural dangers. He must reach his goal before the elements, the predators, or the escaped ursa (yes you knew it would show up), who was being held prisoner in the tail of the ship, manage to destroy him.
There is an aura of danger and throughout this process. I was in suspense the whole time. This being a science fiction/mythological hero's tale, you know that our hero will come through, but there are times when you wonder how he will survive and at what cost?
Cypher leads Kitai through this journey using a communication device strapped to Kitai's arm. Cypher knows how to command better than how to father . You can see how he became a survivor. Instead of showing distress over his situation, he focuses on what he can do and encourages Kitai to do the same: check for vitals, check your supplies, assess the damage, take a knee, breathe in and out. By checking the details, he can put any feelings on hold and stay in the moment.
The plots moves at a fast pace, which fits the movie, but there quiet moments. In one of these moments, we hear how Cypher learned to ghost. And he gives us our nugget of truth: fear is a story we tell ourselves about the future. In this present moment, there is only what is now. Right now, there is a threat, but I have to choose to fear that threat. I am only fearing what might happen, not what is happening right now. Every moment, I tell myself a story.
In the background of this story, there is a back story too that is well explored. Cypher and Kitai have already lost a family member in the past, and this loss is like an open wound between them. In a society where stoicism is honored and valued, these men have not expressed their feelings openly. Both feel responsible for what has happened, but instead project their feelings onto the other person. We see this back story revealed to us in well-time flashbacks, which is another typical Shyamalan device.
This movie is all about visuals. Shyamalan makes good use of the camera, and the terrible world he creates is gorgeous. Film critics tend to complain about his stories and plots but he knows how to direct a shot. There are scenes in After Earth that will astound you with their visual power.
I really respect Shyamalan's work. I love how he takes a truth and inserts it into an entertaining story. The world would do well to follow his example. Too often, we feel the need to ram our opinion down other's throats. Instead, Shyamalan woos us into his stories. By experiencing them we see the truths he wants to share revealed. In this story, we learn that fear is a choice and we can choose to let it take over or tell ourselves a new story. I recommend this movie those that enjoy adventure, science fiction, or Will Smith movies.