You Know, I Actually Liked After Earth


Pictured: Everybody who agrees.

A lot of criticism — film, television, or otherwise — seems to be about tallying flaws and giving a grade. The approach makes sense; after all, that’s how you grade a term paper.

Thing is, entertainment sometimes doesn’t work like a class assignment. Sometimes tallying flaws leads us to miss the big picture on a movie. This seemed to happen to After Earth. I’m not going to claim the movie doesn’t have some occasional story issues (Paul’s take is understandable), but it seemed like the critical community at large really took out their knives for this one in a way it didn’t deserve.

As such, I didn’t get around to the movie until it came to a dollar theater in my area. When I did, what I saw was a movie with a surprisingly strong sense of purpose; a purpose strong enough to see it through despite the other problems it may have. It’s a modest pleasure, to be sure, but nevertheless a legitimate one.

After Earth, obviously, was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. For a lot of people, that was strike one, two, and three. Unfortunately for you guys, I’m still a fan (though not necessarily of every movie), so just bear with me.

I think a lot of the disdain for Shaymalan comes from not quite understanding what his goals are; why he operates the way he does. Really, this problem has been plaguing him ever since he got pigeonholed as some kind of Hitchcockian master-of-horror with The Sixth Sense. And sure, generating suspense has been a proven part of his skill set, even in some sequences from his lesser movies. The man knows how to manage tone.

But Shyamalan was never really a horror guy, at least not entirely. Though Signs and The Village both blatantly used horror elements, the “point” of both movies was something rather separate from the scares that they generated. Specifically, Shyamalan tends towards fables. His stories are often created with a clear, poignant message. Thus, he tends to utilize blatant symbolism, simple narratives, and an occasional overdose of earnest sentiment.

Jaden Smith

For what it’s worth, while Signs certainly exemplified this approach, I’d say The Village was the first movie he made that wholly embodied it. Not coincidentally, I think, The Village was also the movie that really marked the beginning of Shyamalan’s decline in the public eye. Perhaps also not coincidentally, I think it’s one of his best movies.*

Now, as long as I’m talking about After Earth and Shyamalan, it must be noted that the story-by credit belongs to Will Smith alone; however, Shyamalan shares the screenplay credit and his approach is all over the final product.

Oh, speaking of Will Smith, the other things that seems to get people all bothered about After Earth is the presence of two generations of the Smith clan. I’m sure that being Will Smith’s son had a lot to do with Jaden being his co-star, but a) Will Smith produced it, so he can do what he wants, and b) Jaden ain’t half bad. The onscreen results are what matter in the end, and the alleged (and admittedly, obvious) nepotism doesn’t hurt the movie’s quality itself.


And man, this guy can act.

Anyway, being a fable, After Earth may contain the simplest story of 2013. There aren’t any real surprises, nor are there interesting subplots, nor strong emotional hooks.  If the consensus is any measure, this is unilaterally a Bad Thing. But is it? Rudyard Kipling told stories like this all the time, and they’ve certainly endured. It all comes back to whether or not the movie accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Moving on. Other than structure, what does Shyamalan bring to the movie? Stylistically, Shyamalan likes restraint. Always has. He likes to find significance in small things, hold conversations in hushed tones, and keep his stories far away from typical “indulgent spectacle” type stuff.

Frankly, I think he kinda overdoes it in the first act of the movie, where his usual quiet tone mixes awkwardly with an under-developed sci-fi universe to create a genuinely tedious fifteen minutes of screentime. Once the ship crash-lands on Earth, however, things start clicking along much more smoothly. Not that they get “different,” exactly. After Earth still has other things on its mind than narrative complexity.

After Earth is About Something. Specifically, it deals with the problem of fear. See, a creature called an Ursa — Latin for “bear” — has been set loose in the crash. Ursas are special creatures bred to hone in on the scent of fear; the only way to avoid them is to simply not feel it. The movie calls this “ghosting.”


“Ghosting” is exactly what Smith’s character Cypher is best at, and exactly what his son Kitai has never been able to do. There aren’t any real surprises in the way this storyline resolves, but the teachings passed down from father to son have their own dramatic worth. In a fable, the message is the point; the narrative trappings are there to help illustrate the concept. Think of the way Aesop would tell stories to articulate simple concepts like “sour grapes” or “crying wolf.”

Smith’s monologue about the solution to fear, on its own, was worth the watch to me.**

That’s really what it comes down to for me. After Earth says something, and manages to say it in a fairly efficient, cinematic manner. It has its shortcomings, but it also has a sense of identity and purpose. These days, that’s valuable.

So if you find yourself with a free rental or simply stuck watching it at a friend’s house, be open to it. Try to see what the movie is before trashing it for what it isn’t. You may find that After Earth has worth after all.



*Presumably this is still a contentious position to take, but as far as I can tell The Village has been slowly gathering steam in the “good movie” race. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong in the comments; I still think it’s a damn fine film.

**The approach to fear, by the way, sounds an awful lot like the kinds of things I understand Scientology teaches. Fortunately, the movie makes no attempt to get you to join a cult, so I think it’s safe.

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  1. Will smith is an ego manic and all his kids are a store bought plague on hollywood. I can’t stand anything the man does anymore and won’t give anything he or his offspring throw money at in the future.

  2. David I agree with you. I have been a fan of M. Night for quite some time … the 6th Sense being the reason I started to be a fan of his. I agree, his movies aren’t so much what I think a lot of critics make them out to be – I think you nailed it by calling them Fables.

    My personal favorite is actually Lady in the Water. I watched a few interviews from him describing how important the movie was to him personally* and that it was simply a bed time story brought to life. That’s all it is. Yet for some reason, as critics normally do, they tore it apart for what it wasn’t … or at least what it wasn’t to me. Sure movies can have underlying tones and themes and even subtle suggestions that they might be trying to portray, but aren’t we looking for something that is worth WATCHING … and not getting so in depth with?

    I will say that his touch on the Last Airbender** and the Happening were very questionable … but the stories/fables that you are describing seem to ultimately be there as well.

    I’ve not seen After Earth – but this post from you definitely makes me want to give it a go.

    * … the worst part of the film is M. Night actually in it … very unnecessary (stick to directing, not acting)
    ** … good lord I hope someone comes along and does a feature film of the Last Avatar and can put together the right live action movie it deserves!

  3. I agree that The Village is actually a good movie. I think people criticize it for having a weak twist, but I don’t think a twist has to be mind-blowing to be a good part of the story.

    Will Smith can be a good actor. Not everything he does is good, but I’m usually impressed with his performances. He’s one of those people who doesn’t have to bother since he has so much money etc anyway, and yet he appears to put a lot into his performances. I would, however, rather he put his son in some movies without him, its just tiring seeing them together, however good Jayden is.

  4. i have not yet watched after earth, but i will if time permits – but i have to agree with you – i find that all everyone does anymore is complain about the sequels/reboots etc and then proceeds to run and throw their money at them, but then shit on anything newish/original (Pacific Rim) etc because they expected the same reboot/sequel – like music that golden era is gone, folks need to be non-biased and drop/adjust the criteria they currently use. i find these consumers are the ones that have not evolved with this art and/are stuck in which removes their validity of any review

  5. When a film starts to get bad reviews, it all starts to really go down hill, and this is starting to really, really frustrate me.

    I’ll read 500 words criticising the latest Star Trek, only to see it get 3-4 stars. I personally thought it was terrible, but there was this gigantc bandwagon circlejerk of how good it was, despite how bad it was.

    And a few recent films spring immediately to mind when the exact opposite happens. 500 words of faint praise and a 1.5-2 star rating. Pacific Rim, After Earth, Red 2, Pain & Gain . . . I could go on and on.

    It’s becoming an issue, and an incredibly frustrating one at that.

  6. “Sometimes tallying flaws leads us to miss the big picture on a movie.”

    ??? Only if you don’t know what you’re doing.

    Sorry, I see M. Night as a one-hit-wonder whose 15 minutes ran out an awfully long time ago. I will give you, though, that each of his films (that I’ve seen, anyway) has some germs of solid, good ideas and/or solid, lasting performances; the problem is he doesn’t know how to legitimately bring these together in a single film. Instead, he continues flailing in the darkness, mostly b/c Hollywood’s happy giving him a paycheck. Still, I think he’s part of why Hollywood is in the process of fiscally melting down right now as it is.

    But, no, Will Smith is not a great actor. He’s a pop-star turned actor who can — like anyone — hit good notes when and if it’s required of him and he’s given the right material.

  7. @Lucas –

    I pretty much like everything you said here. If you can get down with Lady in the Water (a lovely movie; one of my favorites from him as well), you should definitely give this one a go. It’s not superior to that movie, or really any of his movies pre-Happening, but it’s cut from much the same cloth.

    @Zimmerman –

    Acting is much, much harder than you’re making it out to be, even more so turning in Will Smith-level performances onscreen. There’s not many people who could headline a movie with the demands of, say, I Am Legend and succeed. Ludacris couldn’t do that.

    And maybe I’m misreading you here, but there’s more to it than the material. Great actors have given bad performances in Shakespeare adaptations. Also, Smith has been really, really good in weak-as-hell movies (Hancock, anyone?).

  8. I get what you’re saying about fables. I, too, consider The Village one of Shyamalan’s best. I’ll still never watch it again. But it has nothing to do with the message or the arc of the story. It has to do with the fact that the film is mind-numbingly boring. This is Shyamalan’s greatest conceit; that he believes audiences will be so captured by his mood and theme that we’ll sit through some of the dullest, longest, most emotionless scenes on film. He needs to learn how to engage his audience if he wants us to give a rat’s patootie about his messages.

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