After seeing The Happening, I found that I had a greater respect for director M. Night Shyamalan. I did not think it was his best film, but I thought it was a film with merit. It was a film that demanded respect for the environment and recognized that the earth provides for humanity and not the other way around. We are at nature’s mercy and should be grateful that nature is not as vindictive as humanity. The Happening shows us what the world would look like if nature were more humanlike. The film asserts that humanity is a threat to the planet and that the planet has responded in kind. After Earth, Shyamalan’s most recent film, can be seen as a sequel of sorts to The Happening. It is as though humanity has failed to heed the planet’s warning and, as a result, Earth has evolved to eradicate humanity, forcing a mass exodus to another planet.
This is simply the premise. The narrative is about a father and his son, not entirely unlike Cormac McCarthy’ The Road, but not nearly as well executed. Cypher, the patriarch of the film (played expertly
The Fresh Prince Will Smith), takes his son Kitai (played by Smith’s son Jaden Smith; a brilliant example of nepotism in Hollywood) on a journey. Over the course of the first few minutes we see how humanity has sought to assert itself in its new environment, but has found trouble with creatures named Ursas, who are blind but can smell fear. One such creature is aboard the space flight which Cypher and Kitai are on (it is bound and being transported for training purposes, but as one might assume, it is the gun of the first act). We see that humanity’s dominion over the natural world is as fallible as ever as the ship is soon overcome by asteroids and is forced to crash land on Earth. Cypher is severely injured in the process, but survives, as does his son.
Transported into this new environment, Kitai finds trouble on his own. His personal journey is not compelling, but there are instances along the way which serve to draw out ecocritical arguments.
There is a scene with a simian creature that comes upon Kitai. The simian does not make an overt action against Kitai. Kitai, however, perceiving a threat, launches an attack against the simian, who calls out to his companions. A group of simians arrive and chase Kitai to a river. The scene is telling because peace exists within the natural realm until the representative of humanity breaks that peace. The simians, for their part, display a great deal of loyalty to one another. They join to fight a common threat. This event could be attributed to simple herd behaviour. However, later on in the film, there is a more illuminating instance. A predatory bird who has brought Kitai to her nest is besieged by large feline animals who seek to devour her nestlings. Kitai helps to fight them off, but every bird save the mother is killed. The mother sees the corpses in her nest and flies down to the ground where the limp bodies of several other children lie. There is heartache in the animal and it is clear. It is perhaps the best performance in the film. The bird then follows Kitai on his journey and when Kitai is trapped in a cold freeze, the bird creates a nest on the ground and provides warmth for Kitai at the expense of her own life. This sacrifice is perhaps the most touching scene in the film. The bird’s anguish in the previous scene leant her human qualities, but this act of loyalty and gratitude presents the bird as more noble than any of the human characters. There is also the Moby Dick reference. Cypher’s daughter (played by Zoë Isabella Kravitz, daughter to Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet and another shining example of Hollywood nepotism ) asks if humans really did hunt whales. His answer is yes, until humanity found carbon fuels (which isn’t true since whale hunting still goes on today despite the utter lack of a need for whale by-products). It is clear that Shyamalan intended to instil this film with an ecocritical message, allowing the work to serve as a sequel and companion piece to The Happening.
The problem, however, is that the story simply isn’t that compelling, and neither are the actors’ performances. There are the obvious complaints about nepotism from critics, but the irony is that it is Will Smith’s performance which is lacking in this film, not Jaden Smith’s. With such a script, it would be hard for any actor Jaden Smith’s age to pull off a noteworthy performance, and neither is he so terrible that anybody would take notice, were he not the son of a celebrity like Will Smith. Will Smith has previously performed well in action roles. His skill set was very fitting for Hancock and the Men In Black series, for example, and he was suitable for for I Am Legend .But as a hard-ass commander, he just isn’t convincing, aside from the script not being of much help. That said, I have heard that the timing of After Earth caused Will Smith to turn down the role of Django in Django Unchained, for which I am grateful because Jamie Foxx was simply too perfect for that role. Kravitz, likewise, was the victim of poorly-written dialogue. There simply weren’t any interesting human characters in the film. The bird of prey was the most compelling character of the film. The relationship between Cypher and Kitai is supposed to be forced, as is the relationship between Cypher and other members of his family, but this ‘forced’ relationship is lacking authenticity. There is also the tag line to the film: “Danger is real. Fear is a choice.” It is an interesting conversation to have, how our perceptions are our realities, but it is not adequately developed in the film, and since the audience has heard the tag line in the trailers a score of times or more, it comes across as repetitive in the film.
It was interesting to see Earth as it is imagined without humanity: lush, green and majestic and functioning quite well without any bipedal creators. And it was interesting to see Shyamalan return to this theme, a theme I hope he revisits in future projects, but it seems the Shyamalan has not found a way to integrate such important themes with his creative and infectious story telling. The 6th Sense and Unbreakable were examples of the pinnacle of storytelling. The characters were interesting, the dialogue engaging, the story entertaining and the climax gratifying. Though I don’t believe his other films were as well executed, Signs, The Village and Lady In the Water were certainly all great films. After Earth though is not. Shyamalan has not managed to marry the social commentary with his masterful storytelling, but the effort is commendable. My hope is that he does master this amalgamation soon, though he seems to have taken a step back from The Happening. The film, though by no means a masterpiece, is not without its merits. As a special effects film, it is disappointing. As a science-fiction film, it is disappointing. As far as the acting goes, the film was simply not engaging (though again, the script is likely the source of this problem, and not so much the actors, though they don’t help the situation much). As an ecocritical work though, it is more successful, though still lacking in many ways.