After Earth - Not really the stinker it was made out to be...

Jedi Mind Trick
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Leading up to its release, I really wanted to go see After Earth. M. Night Shyamalan was due for another hit and Will Smith usually comes through in man vs Alien movies. Mixed reviews caused me to pass on seeing it in theaters, but curiosity finally got the better of me and I watched it at home. Here are my take aways –

It isn’t nearly as bad as the many critics make it out to be. Sometimes I believe that people think that being a critic means finding fault with things…so many take that as a license to pick nits and try to be cute doing it. The movie isn’t one that you’d want to rush out and buy in blu ray, but it is entertaining and poses some interesting quetsions. Further, if you catch some of the references in the movie – stuff like shout outs to Moby Dick, the ‘Earth will get on without you’ ecological message that admonishes humans for generally stinking up the place, and even the names of the characters…Cypher and Kitai…or the big nasty, a genetically engineered race of human killers called ‘ursa’ – when you figure into these a bit, the thinking/logic of the piece comes in to closer focus.

The setting places the story roughly 1,000 years into the future. Humanity has fled the Earth because they jacked it up beyond habitability. The planet they chose to migrate to had prior occupants and, not taking to kindly to being evicted, they engineered a nasty, biological monstrosity and set it to kill vs stun for humans. Humanity fought many battles and ended up at, essentially, a standstill. In these fights, Will Smith’s character, General Cypher Raige, has gained great fame and notoriety.

Against this backdrop we see the story play out as a tale where father and son are separated by complex issues like ‘dad is a hero who is away conquering things’ vs ‘son is not really cutting it while trying to follow father’s footsteps’ and ‘you watched your sister die and didn’t do a thing to prevent it’ vs ‘what was I supposed to do Dad? Die with her?’

All the real fun in the movie starts when General Cypher and his son, Kitai, end up on the losing side of fight with an asteroid shower and crash land on Earth. In 1,000 years, the place has changed a bit. Vegetation has taken over with a vengeance, birds (or what passes for them) darken the sky, buffalo roam in massive herds, house cats have evolved into saberless sabertoothed tigers and it looks like Africa/India has somehow continental drifted into the Appalachian Mountains. Hand wave the stuff that doesn’t make scientific sense. We did it with Star Wars, Fifth Element, and episode after Episode of Doctor Who…we can do it here too.

In the crash, Cypher gets busted up and, in order to survive, he has to rely on Kitai, who has flunked out of Ranger school because he’s book smart with nerves like watery jello. The guy really can’t handle pressure of any sort and his hyperventilation during the scene where the spacecraft is going down will probably make you laugh out loud. So…that’s the setup. Stone cold killer father is forced to rely on spastic son in a desperate struggle for survival where the entire planet is out to get them.

Kitai, under the constant oversight and instruction of this father (courtesy of a go-pro enabled back pack and vitals monitoring that had me thinking of the LT watching the team from the ATV in Aliens) sets out to travel 100 or so kilometers to find the tail of the spacecraft and set off a distress beacon that is expected to be found there. Kitai gets some cool gear and kit to help him in this mission…the aforementioned camera enabled pack, a limited supply of inhalers to make the air breathable, a chameleon suit that changes colors to whatever the hell it wants to vs camouflage and a really cool sword called a ‘cutlass’ that is really a double blade with some sort of memory metal that can configure to every sort of blade from katana style to ice axe to manga style fantasy blade.

I’m not going to spoil the story about the journey, but lots of wild things happen…not least of which is you get to see where Africa/India found its way to become a neighbor to what would pass for the Blue Ridge Mountains. LOL.   The trip, really, is a series of victories and setbacks where the father and son have to learn to work together. To do that they have to overcome whatever it is between them and learn to trust and value one another for what they bring to the relationship. And, to some extent, being comfortable with themselves for their particular contribution.

The world of After Earth is beautiful. It has a vast ecosystem with flora and fauna galore. There are attempts to make the things work together…but the science isn’t really explained…and dwelling too much on that would ruin the movie. Early in the movie I decided that the whole thing was sort of a fable/morality play and didn’t really put too much on the science. I suspended disbelief and just watched the movie to see what sort of lesson unfolded. By doing this…I didn’t get hung up on how a tropical place could freeze every night or how mammals and birds outnumber the insects in After Earth…and, of course, why there isn’t any evidence of civilization on the planet. Tupperware doesn’t degrade in 1,000 years so I figure some of that should have been laying around in the undergrowth. I also didn’t get too hung up on the gee whiz technology that these guys have or the pseudo-science that is used to explain the ‘graviton’ storm that drives the asteroid storm that subsequently places the action on Earth…

I’m telling you. Don’t get hung up on it. Its an M. Night Shyamalan film…DON’T. TEST. THE. SCIENCE.

What you can, and should, do is try to decipher all the mental hooks that are embedded in the film. For instance…

There are a few references to Moby Dick in the film. These aren’t really explained…but I do remember a few things about Moby Dick. One of them is the drive of Ahab to pursue the White Whale. The quote below, from Ahab, does sort of reflect how Cypher is presented on screen…

   “Come, Ahab’s compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve   me.  Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man   has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron   rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through   the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush!   Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”

Cypher is a guy that can sit in the cockpit of a downed space craft and watch his son make an improbably journey across a hostile planet…all the time calmly explaining to him what he needs to do. Not really reacting to the visuals, but watching the vital signs, the tracking readout and other forms of data as a form of input for mission assessment and correction. Needless to say, you can figure why the name Cypher might be fitting.

Also, in researching this article, I happened across the AFTER EARTH BACKSTORY (not seen in the film). Apparently there is a whole work up on the culture, history, etc behind After Earth that serves as an anchor point for the story. Here’s the link…

In summary, After Earth is a decent movie. Its not about the science as much as it is about how a father and son come to trust and respect one another. Its also a story about a boy coming into his own and facing down his greatest fears. All the rest is really window dressing. Watch it for the story and you will be pleasantly surprised.