After Earth: Nepotism, Ecocriticism and the Sequel to The Happening

"After Earth", directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Will Smith.

“After Earth”, directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Will Smith.

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 McCarthyThe Road, but not nearly as well executed.  Cypher, the patriarch of the film (played expertly

Zoë Kravitz, star of "After Earth".

Zoë Kravitz, star of “After Earth”.

by 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.

Poster for "The Happening". Also directed by M. Night Shyamalan and a prequel of sorts to "After Earth".  It too shares an ecocritical reading.

Poster for “The Happening”. Also directed by M. Night Shyamalan and a prequel of sorts to “After Earth”, it too shares an ecocritical reading.

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.

 

Will Smith, star of "After Earth".

Will Smith, star of “After Earth”.

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.

 

M. Night Shyamalan, director of "After Earth".  He reminds me of the zombified Michael Jackson in the 'Thriller' video for some reason.

M. Night Shyamalan, director of “After Earth”. He reminds me of the zombified Michael Jackson in the ‘Thriller’ video for some reason.

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.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Donella says:

    This is one of the fairest and more thoughtful reviews of After Earth that I’ve read on the internet. After Earth is a streamlined quest/adventure movie in a sci-fi backdrop of dystopian abandoned Earth. The strength of the movie is the father-son bond with Will Smith channeling Laurence Fishburne’s character from Boyz in the Hood, guiding Jaden Smith via remote cameras through hostile Earth. I can tell that the author of this piece did, in fact, see the movie because he focuses the review on key plot points and elements that occur during Kitai’s journey.

    However, the negative buzz on this movie was swift and harsh during the movie’s first weekend, amid personal attacks against Will and Jaden Smith and M. Knight Shyalaman. Irresponsible reviewers used religious bigotry and possible Scientology slander (similar to the Muslim slander used against President Barack Obama), and nepotism backlash to smother the film’s performance in negativity and create fear and mistrust of the Smiths with North American audiences.

    The fact that Tom Cruise received virtually no commentary on his religious beliefs during Oblivion’s run, and that neither Robert Downey Jr nor Gwenyth Paltrow who are both children of acting veterans received no nepotism commentary on Iron Man 3 reveals an under layer of resentment, envy, and vituperation almost on an obsessive level specifically against the Smiths. So specific, that one does forget that Zoe Kravitz is herself the beneficiary of nepotism. But then, so are Robert Downey Jr, Ben Stiller, Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges, Michael Douglas, Cameron Douglas, Kyle Eastwood, Peter Fonda, John Huston, Angelica Huston, Colin Hanks, Scott Caan, Jake Busey, Josh Brolin, Josh Ritter, Sophia Coppola, Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie, Gwenyth Paltrow, Rumor Willis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jamie Lee Curtis, Carrie Fisher, Emma Roberts, Liv Tyler, Liza Minnelli, Sophia Coppola, Nicolas Cage, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Bridget Fonda, George Clooney, Miguel Ferrer, Lorenzo Lamas, Mamie Gummer, Eva Amurri, Kate Hudson, Kyle Eastwood, Jordan Ladd, Sean Astin, Mackenzie Astin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Kiefer Sutherland, and Miley Cyrus. Maybe a hundred wrongs don’t make one right, but it does indicate a pattern of acceptance that has been disrupted only by the presence of the Smiths who are not allowed to participate in a Hollywood business practice that has been tradition since the Golden Age.

    Despite efforts to crush the domestic box office, After Earth is doing well with worldwide box office, likely because foreign press doesn’t take North America’s entertainment media as seriously as it takes itself. So far, it is up to $199 million worldwide and will open for release in the second largest box office market in the world this weekend–China, who doesn’t take North America seriously at all. Although hard to predict, China has traditionally supported both Smiths at the box office.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. Your response was very well thought out and articulated. AS for nepotism in Hollywood… part of the issue is that many of the actors/actresses you mentioned actually do or did get a hard time because of being second or third generation actors. They had to do a lot to break the reputation. Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas especially. Others you mentioned still haven’t broken through. Many of the ones you mentioned had parents that weren’t terribly famous. Ben Stiller’s father was a successful comedian, but wasn’t a household name until after his son became famous. His occasional role on Seinfeld got him some face recognition and his role on King Of Queens got him name recognition, but the KOQ role came after his son’s fame. I don’t think most people could name Josh Borlin’s parents or Gwenyth’s either, or Carrie Fisher. As for Sophia Coppola, she received extremely harsh criticism after her performance in The Godfather III. I don’t think the negative press that the Smith’s got was unique. I think it fits in with a pattern in Hollywood that a lot of second generation performers go through until they prove that they deserve to be there.

  3. Donella says:

    The lay person outside the Hollywood machine may not know that Mamie Gummer is Meryl Streep’s daughter, that Eva Amurri is Susan Sarandon’s daughter, and that Kate Hudson is Goldie Hawn’s daughter.

    However, a HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER in the midst of the casting process, or not even bothering with auditions will know.

    And so, nepotism has won, does win, and will win the day when the role goes to a friend’s daughter or son instead of the cattle call.

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