Thursday, February 4, 2016

After Earth

"Fear is not real.
The only place fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future.
It is a product of our imagination causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist.
.... but fear is a choice.
We are all telling ourselves a story."
-Cypher Raige-

It was the last thing I ever expected.

I had every intention to simply view director M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth (2013), go through the motions, and move along. Of course that's a difficult thing to do for a writer who enjoys breaking down all things science fiction regardless of whether a reaction is positive or negative. Nevertheless discounting After Earth was essentially the plan. Almost every critic did after all. Alas, I simply could not discount After Earth despite all I had read and heard about the film. After a basement level cumulative average of just 11% of critics who somehow managed to somehow enjoy the film at Rotten I was slightly gob smacked by the disdain for this film and for Shyamalan. Are you kidding me? After the critical drubbing the film, the director, and the Smith boys took After Earth turned out to be a great big ball of unexpected science fiction adventure fun.

I'm not quite sure why it is lately, sadly, it is a persistent and insistent refrain that Shyamalan has lost his touch as a director long ago and that he must somehow be berated and beaten into submission as an artist upon each and every release. It seems almost cruel. The Visit (2015) and his input on TV series Wayward Pines (2015) being quite possibly the single exception generally speaking since the split reaction on The Village (2004) only so that critics could somehow provide a mild endorsement or a marginally positive backhanded compliment. Strange.

I could not view After Earth and simply let it go. I felt compelled to at least offer some small counter here to the steady drum beat of those critics who continue to dispel Shyamalan or offer some kind of incendiary criticism of the man's talents.

Writer John Kenneth Muir certainly gave me pause with his positive evaluations of Shyamalan's films. His analysis is not the voice of mere fan speak, but of a critical eye and one that once again accurately reflects the qualities found therein of After Earth, because, by God, After Earth, after all I had been led to believe was actually a mighty fine little film.

I've certainly been wrong before or steered in the wrong direction from time to time. This writer has not been immune to falling prey to false refrains by some fans and critics alike about certain films and television. I've been misguided now and again. I'm by no means a victim. That's far too easy a claim to level in today's political climate. Let's bear some responsibility shall we? I'm here to correct the narrative and right a wrong here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic when the spirit so moves me.

I was wrong to miss Firefly (2002). Of course you could have blinked and missed that one. I was wrong to believe Defiance (2013-2015) wasn't the compelling character and culture story on alien/ human relations that I had discovered set within a frontier motif. I was so desperately wrong, like so many fans of the Stargate franchise, that Stargate Universe (2009-2011) wasn't indeed the best of the bunch or inferior in some way to its predecessors. That couldn't be farther from the truth.

Since these missteps we do our best here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic to support quality science fiction where we see it and do our very best to support it when and while we can. The Expanse (2015-present) and Dark Matter (2015-present) are two great examples.

Well, here, I was wrong about After Earth, a film as Muir reported quite eloquently works as a wonderful, imaginative adventure tale. One that echoes the likes of a book he read called Adventures For Boys.

In my own engagement with the film this writer took that theme further into my own experience as After Earth finds or draws inspiration from the likes of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894), Jack London's The Call Of The Wild (1903) and the fabulous White Fang (1906), a personal favorite from my own childhood memories as well as Mark Twain's The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Sequences including lions and rafts feel as though they were ripped straight from the pages of these books. Consider, if you will, the singular voice of a publication as classic as Boy's Life (since 1911), still arriving in my own mail box, and one that is still read by boys today.

As Muir pointed out there is a "clarity" and "simplicity" to this voice. Speaking of voice's, this theme resonates and reminds me on a song by Norwegian pop group a-ha called Living A Boy's Adventure Tale  from their debut recording Hunting High And Low (1985). This song captures the spirit of the subtext and youthful messaging to be discovered in After Earth by anyone with a youthful heart.

I was wrong to write off young, aspiring actor Jaden Smith, as Kitai, at the time, as nothing more than the spoiled recipient of his father's (Will Smith) coattails. Young Smith, as Kitai Raige, was credible and sincere and certainly perfect for the role of a boy attempting to become a man. Jaden is never cocksure or disrespectful as young roles are often played. In effect, Kitai is here to one day become the man that is his father. This is a story about passing the torch,a rite of passage of which all men and women can relate. His father, Cypher Raige, is played with real restraint and an interesting affect by Will Smith. The performances are different, very good and unexpected.

I was wrong to think After Earth was some kind of overactive, poorly-conceived, overly CGI-driven and cluttered action set piece to numb the mind on par with the Transformers films. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I believed all of this was at hand based on word of mouth and unfair, unfounded judgments without having seen a single frame.

As it turns out, the effects work is excellent, minimal or at least seamless (the number of computer effects in any film is astounding) in telling a much quieter story of a boy's journey to manhood as he makes every effort to save his father. This was indeed a boy's adventure tale with a solid science fiction backdrop---a future Earth.

There were a great many moments where Shyamalan's camera stays in intimate focus upon the actors. After Earth is not a flurry of action sequences, but one of mood and atmosphere, a truly underrated trademark for Shyamalan. Shyamalan always delivers a certain menacing vibe and executes waves of quiet amidst his compelling worlds. He did so successfully in The Sixth Sense (1999), effectively in Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002) and even The Village. The latter, the last film of which I witnessed, before succumbing to the knives of those who would wish Shyamalan a much different directorial fate than his earlier highlights would have suggested. It's difficult to understand the thinking or accept such vitriol.

As it turned out After Earth was an experience. How could one hate this film? It played like pure science fiction escapism with heart as we too experience this boy's adventure tale. It's immersive sense of scale and location, while maybe not as grand or epic, reminisced of the kind of journey enjoyed in James Cameron's Avatar (2009). It enjoys all of the picturesque environmental messaging of the aforementioned picture without the preaching. Much of the beauty of the film's cinematography comes compliments of Peter Suschitzky. Suschitzky works regularly with David Cronenberg but also had a hand in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Krull (1983) and Red Planet (2000) when it comes to notable genre pictures with distinction. So After Earth's credentials are impressive and the end product more noteworthy than anyone ever gave it credit.

Not that politics should ever be part of the casting for these films, but I found the witch-hunt for Shyamalan to be brutally unfair upon the release of his film The Last Airbender (2010). Casting choices are personal choices by the artists, but every so often a film comes along that brings out individuals with razor sharp knives. We're seeing a similar refrain with Ghost In The Shell (2017) with its every artistic decision. And ironically Smith has boycotted the Academy Awards for not honoring enough African Americans. What a shame in 2016. Shyamalan was the latest recipient at the time accused of whitewashing the characters in The Last Airbender. There weren't enough apparent Asians in the film. It must be awfully painful for a director to have to undergo cries of racism when they are not racist. Taylor Swift suffered a similar backlash with her recent music video period piece Wildest Dreams. I'm no fan of Swift, but the criticisms leveled against these artists are simply preposterous. Issues of racism are wildly mis-applied in the new century. But here we have an almost all African-American science fiction film and it's excellent, but guess what race should have nothing to do with it.

I don't know if After Earth was an after thought for Shyamalan or part of a plan, but I don't suspect it was a response to critics to cast After Earth with a primarily African-American cast especially with production chores assigned almost entirely to the Smith family. Of course, that never worked out in Shymalan's favor did it? With a good contingent of the Smith family on board to co-produce the picture with Shyamalan I suspect race had very little to do with it. Shyamalan saw a story and an artistic opportunity and After Earth was the result. And still, After Earth may be one of the few science fiction pictures I can recall with an almost entirely African-American cast for its principals. How did that work out for Shyamalan?

But moving back to the film's themes, apart from the simple idea of a boy's story, a boy's life, there are other elements in play regarding life. Jaden's character is coping with his broken relationship with his father, the result of the loss of a sister that permeate the film and how those events impact the boy's decisions. These emotionally-charged moments are handled beautifully throughout the film. The subtext of this point throughout the picture underscore how such events traumatize and affect our decision-making throughout our own lives. These are recurring, painful exercises. They challenge us and push us to grow regardless of our age or station in life.

There is also the story and screenplay by Smith and Shyamalan and the theme of fear that pervades the film. It is a powerful one. One scene in particular focuses on the Will Smith character and his assessment of fear. It is important to the picture itself and speaks to the core of the film. An alien creature called the Ursa is the physical manifestation of that emotion that confronts the boy. The element of fear permeates our very lives and affects our decisions. The film teaches us that we must push past our fears, accept our failures so that we may meet our successes and ultimately grow. Otherwise, each of us, will be paralyzed by our fears and thus ineffective at reaching our potential. This speaks to us all and certainly my own struggles. This psychology resonates with me. The writing in After Earth was much better than anticipated. Ironically, I needed to discover for myself how I would respond.

In the beginning I had a certain preconceived notion about After Earth based upon a slough of writings and criticisms that simply, like Earth, don't hold water here, but After Earth is a compelling, beautiful, fully-realized science fiction universe that keeps things simple, stunning and moving as we experience a boy's journey through the eyes of a father and son. Through Smith's character, Cypher, in effect, projects his hopes and dreams through his son, as we all do. Will his son siphon the wisdom of the father? The film affectingly asks us to pause and reflect on our own rearing of our children. Are we patiently imparting the skill sets and wisdom they will require to survive in the world? Are we taking the appropriate time and measures to assist them and guide them to think and analyze for themselves?

Kitai's father at once controls fear, controls emotion and thus makes efforts to break those walls to allow emotion and love to stream to his son. It is a delicate balancing act to be sure and speaks to the sometimes difficult relationship men have with their children in this world. Just as his name suggests, the father enunciates or ciphers a series of steps for his son to survive. Being mindful to a process or procedure is essential as Cypher directs his son throughout the film while allowing Kitai to experience and grow through his own actions.

There is a symmetry in play, a poetry, in fact one I thought was actually going to conclude the film with a message tantamount to the circle of life. There is such beauty in this film. Yet, perhaps the film was too underwhelming for the brain-dead masses upon its release in May at the start of the summer season where mindless action tends to rule the day. Because After Earth is an infinitely better film than the likes of The Avengers (2012). This is a simple science fiction adventure story and one where Shyamalan does not lose sight of his scripting opportunities to breathe real humanity and moments of philosophical and spiritual reflection into the lives of his characters. It is indeed instilled with the director's simple, affecting graces too. Take a knee. Self-evaluate. Fear is a choice. These are strong messages that should give us all pause.

God knows we live in a world where it is very easy to criticize without all of the facts and as a culture we have relinquished the opportunity to view and make reasoned assessments on our own instead succumbing to the mis-information age of You Tube and ad hominem attacks that seem to fly around us like leaves in the wind. People spin information into half-truths and outright lies. Films like After Earth gives us a little time to self-reflect.

As noted earlier After Earth is a strikingly beautiful film throughout. See the images in this post as exhibit A. With a film title that includes Earth, Shyamalan makes painstaking efforts to paint the earth greens and blues into this picture. It is a gorgeous picture with a visual appreciation for the environment. Earth has been abandoned by humanity after running it into the ground. In the absence of mankind, a dangerous world has emerged, but the absence of man has also allowed the Earth a rebirth. Visually it alludes to the repopulation of the bison, birds, baboons, the forest, rivers. This is as much a film that underscores the need to protect the Earth as it is a film that focuses on survival and self-preservation. Why not both? Hayao Miyazaki would be proud.

Know this, the simple, layered film that is After Earth was wrongfully discarded and is a quality science fiction film filled with heart and humanity to spare. Its a family film about the love of a father and son, a rite of passage story, a survival film and it never hits a false note. There isn't a thing I would do differently. I know most critics aren't necessarily looking for more action, ticket buyers maybe, so it's hard to comprehend the problem so many had with this film.

Wow. Will you look at that? All of that praise on a quality film and not a single mention of a twist ending. Yes, M. Night Shyamalan doesn't just make quality twist endings, but whole, entire, quality films.

Let After Earth stand as evidence and testament to the old adage you can't believe everything you hear or read---except maybe here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic.


El Vox said...

Yeah, I think it got short shrift too and didn't think it was that bad of an adventure yarn. Will Smith's performance was the worse thing for me about it. Other than that I thought it worked well as a YA ie Hunger Games type film.

El Vox said...

I just got my book, Anime Classics Zettai! in the mail today. Looks to be a great little anime primer. Thanks for the tip. I see they have the Phoenix 2772 anime in it. It's a good older one.

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

El Vox

I really actually didn't mind Smith's performance. It was measure din such a way to reflect his military training and a kind of institutional respect. I thought it was okay.

Glad you picked up that book. As you'll discover, it's a great one. Very informative. You'll learn a great deal about your favorites. It includes just about all of the best on the market. Cheers El Vox