by Indy Datta
Imagine what Jack Vance could have done with this. The main action of After Earth is an inverted planetary romance – the father and son team of Cypher and Kitai Raige (Will and Jaden Smith respectively) marooned on a future earth abandoned by humanity and now purportedly transformed into a world as thrillingly alien as any other, a world they must negotiate and conquer in order to survive. The scope thus given for a writer to reimagine our familiar world is endless, that act of imaginative transformation as close as anything can be to the very essence of science fiction. But, like so many ostensibly science fictional films, After Earth does nothing more than borrow genre clothes as a kind of drag: and it has no wonders to show us because its mind, such as it is, is on other things.
Like so many films before it, what After Earth is dragging up in science fiction clothes is Joseph Campbell’s concept of the monomyth or hero’s journey – a common underlying narrative structure which Campbell described in the folk myths of many different cultural traditions, and which has been adopted as something close to holy writ in Hollywood (and its ideological satellites, such as the screenwriting-teaching-scam business) on a progressively more pervasive level since George Lucas first adopted Campbell’s theories wholesale as the theoretical underpinning of the original Star Wars trilogy.
But the lesson that Hollywood continues to draw from the success of Star Wars is based on a fallacy; that Lucas based his story’s underpinnings on Campbell’s work does not demonstrate that his stories were successful because of such underpinnings. It is at least as likely that Star Wars’ audiences responded to a cohesive and attractively designed fictional universe rendered with state of the art cinematic technique, and populated with interesting characters played by likeable actors. The hypothesis that they responded on a primal level to the story of the Hero with a Thousand Faces is both unnecessary and far from proven.
After Earth’s big miscalculation is that the monomyth is the main event, and it lays the structure of it bare to the audience’s scrutiny, while its science fictional and dramatic trappings are given the shortest of shrift. Back to those wonders we might have expected a great science fiction writer to show us in an earth transformed when it first grew hostile to human life and latterly bloomed for a millennium in the absence of humanity: After Earth is set in locations drably indistinguishable from the real world places they are (at one point I wondered which of the US national parks a particular redwood forest might be located in – far from wild and hostile to humanity, a location protected and nurtured by it). The terrifying fauna that (maybe, see below) drove humanity from earth are represented by: a pack of baboons who are scared of water, some big cats with weirdly squashed faces, and a giant eagle cum deus ex machina (all of the foregoing rendered in shoddily conceived CGI animated form).
How the world got from here to there is glossed over, despite copious expository voice over and historical flashbacks, and what little is explained makes precious little sense. It would take longer than I have (or am inclined to have) to enumerate everything that makes no sense in After Earth (although I am sad not to have an opportunity to quote in context the line “Graviton buildup could be a precursor to mass expansion!”), but let’s talk about the Ursas.
So, after humanity has vacated Earth (for reasons that are never really made clear: is it because they have made the climate intolerable or because Earth flora and fauna have turned against them? Both readings are compatible with the film) they head in their space arks for a planet called Nova Prime, where they come up against an alien race of would-be competing colonists, the Skrel. In response, the Skrel specially breed a beast that the humans call the Ursa (although they are not at all bearlike, being instead standard issue excrescences of vaguely Lovecraftian CGI that could have been used without modification in 90% of fantasy blockbusters of recent years) which, although “technically blind”, can key onto pheromones secreted by frightened humans. Humanity’s victory against the Skrel comes about when General Cypher Raige invents a technique known as “ghosting”, to conquer his fear, enabling him to walk right up to an Ursa and stab it with his supremely impractical twin-bladed “cutlass” (humanity in After Earth eschews guns and bombs: fortunately, so do the Skrel, seemingly). Now, with the Skrel vanquished (or at any rate playing no part in the plot of the film), the Raiges are heading off Nova Prime for a training exercise with an Ursa in the hold of their ship, when disaster strikes.
So many questions! Why would the Skrel specially breed blind hunting beasts? Why would anyone be scared of the Ursas when everyone knows they can’t see you? Why, having vanquished the Skrel, would you continue to keep Ursas (and presumably breed them?) for training exercises, when the only point of learning how to ghost would be to kill Ursas?
So many rhetorical questions, it’s fair to say, as its clear that After Earth is about Kitai (who is suffering from fear and guilt after his sister was killed by an Ursa) learning to conquer his fear, master ghosting, and thereby become worthy of his father’s respect (and I’ve steered clear in this review of discussing any of the extratextual clusterfuck surrounding this film, but eww), and therefore plot logic is going to be secondary to Will Smith’s big monologue about the first time he ghosted and the moment when Jaden comes into his inheritance. But the script fumbles both moments badly – it’s not remotely clear from Cypher’s monologue what the emotional components or techniques of ghosting are, it’s not at all clear how Kitai achieves it at the end of the film (oops, spoiler warning), and it’s utterly opaque how the two are related (on the crudest possible level, director M. Night Shyamalan tries to tie the two moments together with an aural flashback, but without the meaning, the tying is fruitless).
After Earth ends on a pleasantly unexpected note when Kitai tells his father he doesn’t want to follow in his footsteps after all. Of course, with this film being intended as the first of a trilogy, that was never intended to be the character’s last thought on the subject, but After Earth’s probable box office failure should mean that we are spared the latter stages of Kitai Raige’s hero’s journey. So there’s that, at least.