Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Shyamalan Series: After Earth (2013)

When I was a young boy, I received for Christmas one year a book with the (now politically-incorrect…) title Adventures for Boys

After avidly reading the selections within that anthology, I devoured other, similar stories of outdoor adventure such as Jack London’s (1876 – 1916) The Call of the Wild (1903), and White Fang (1906). 

Those tales featured genuine simplicity -- or clarity -- of theme and morality, and to this day, I find that writing voice and style appealing.

Almost universally set in a harsh climate or natural terrain, these “adventures for boys” also concerned,  specifically, a character’s rite of passage, even if the character in question happens to be a canine.

M. Night Shyamalan’s much-maligned science fiction movie After Earth (2013) is an affair in an almost identical vein. It’s a boy-against nature, rite-of-passage movie, and one uncluttered by story fat or extraneous plotting and incident.

In fact, After Earth is a stream-lined, enjoyable adventure for boys and girls.  And likes its literary antecedents, the film even focuses on a very specific philosophy of life, and explores that (spiritual) way of knowing with a surfeit of clarity, even grace.  

And I'm not talking about Scientology, either.

In short, the film is more enjoyable, and worthwhile than I anticipated it would be, and much more so than most reviews have indicated.

After Earth is set in the distant future. Man has left Earth behind after polluting and ruining it.  

One thousand years after that exodus and re-settlement on another world, Nova Prime, man has established himself as an interstellar presence. 

Unfortunately, a competing alien race has bred monstrous predators called the Ursa who can smell our fear, and who are engineered to do nothing but hunt and murder humans.

On a routine space mission aboard a ship called the Hesper, a hero father, Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his estranged, troubled teenage son, Kitai Rage (Jaden Smith) face danger when their ranger ship encounters an “asteroid storm.” 

The ship crashes on wild, untamed Earth, after cracking into pieces.  Alas, a rescue beacon is located on the tail section of the ship…located more than fifty miles away from the fore section’s crash site.

Side-lined by a severe leg injury, Cypher must send his inexperienced son into the wild alone to retrieve the rescue beacon and send a distress call to the authorities. 

Making matters more dangerous, the Hesper was carrying in its hold a deadly Ursa captive, a creature now unloosed on Earth and ready to resume hunting human survivors.

Cypher has mastered the art of “ghosting,” of suppressing his fear so that the Ursa can’t detect his presence.  But his son, Kitai, has no such experience…

In my introduction above, I wrote about After Earth’s central, fully-explored theme or philosophy. 

That philosophy of life -- short and sweet -- is mindfulness: the attentive awareness of the reality of things; of the happenings of the moment.  It’s a Buddhist belief, but also one that has been adopted in contemporary psychological counseling.

Mindfulness is considered one way of understanding life, and of vanquishing emotions that aren’t important, or serve no useful purpose.  And in After Earth, mindfulness is the gateway to adulthood and the key to survival in a frightening situation.  And we have seen in the Shyamalan series how purpose, and understanding of purpose -- clarity of one's destiny -- is a crucial leitmotif.

Specifically, Cypher delivers a lengthy monologue about the nature of fear in the film, and how, via the auspices of mindfulness, he was able to subtract fear from his mental gestalt.  Cypher describes danger as “real” but fear as nothing but a choice, an emotion that is “imaginary.”  

Hence, it can be controlled.

Cypher’s key to short-circuiting the un-real aspect of fear, as he describes it, is his recognition of his immediate, surrounding environment.  He describes a terrifying battle with an Ursa, and how fear left his body.  His eyes registered sunlight.  He describes the sight of his own blood.   But Cypher distanced himself from his emotions even as he tuned into his environment, so he could survive. In a crisis, Cypher suggests, we must deal with what surrounds us, instead of imaginary boogeymen that are unreal, and therefore unrelated to the life-and-death struggle at hand.

Mindfulness is the philosophy that guides and informs After Earth, but the mode of that philosophy’s transmission is of equal interest to the message itself.  This is a film about generations, and about fathers-and-sons, specifically.

Indeed, one might gaze upon the film in its entirety as a metaphor for fathering (or on a bigger scale, parenting in general).  Here a father must share with his child the way he sees the world, and then hope that this very knowledge will be useful when that boy must stand up and fight alone.  

Without being maudlin about it, the movie is about the wisdom we impart to our children. Other Shyamalan films have been, more or less, about the same idea.  Think of Morgan and Bo in Signs (2002), or Joseph in Unbreakable (2000).  Do we pass on our perceptual sets, or do we show them how to see the world in their own way?

And, of course, in this case, it’s absolute murder to see the boy stand up and fight alone, when it’s clear that Cypher wants nothing more than to fight Kitai’s battles for him. 

That’s an urge all parents feel and yet, in some important instances, must resist.  We send our children out into the world knowing that we can’t always be there for them, but that, hopefully, the things we taught them will resonate and prove meaningful. Those seeds will sprout in their memories, and they will survive and endure, and then -- one day -- pass on their version of that knowledge to the next generation.

The father-son relationship in After Earth is emotionally-moving because even a helpful philosophy such as mindfulness can be perceived, in certain situations, as negative.  

From the outside, it looks a lot like distance, or the lack of feeling...the lack of love. 

As Kitai's mother suggests, he is a sensitive, intuitive, feeling boy, one who needs a father, not a philosopher or commander.  He doesn't understand why his father is so remote.  There is a price to pay for mindfulness, for always living life in the "ghosting" mode, in the film's vernacular.

In terms of family issues, Cypher and Kitai both experienced a tragedy involving a family member, and Cypher doesn’t know how to handle his guilt.  So he deploys mindfulness in his family life too, but there is a cost to those around him.   It is not difficult or inappropriate to see Cypher as a character like the Reverend Graham Hess in Signs, someone who has suffered a tragedy and changed, withdrawing, essentially, from his children.

Cypher -- adhering to the stoicism of mindfulness -- can’t reach out emotionally, because he believes emotions don’t help in a crisis.  Cypher has been practicing mindfulness in his personal life for so long that he forgets what it means to really connect with someone. In other words, the very philosophy that keeps him alive is the thing that keeps him from truly connecting with his son.

Accordingly, After Earth reaches its zenith of emotion during its climax, when Cypher attempts to express his new-found regard and respect for Kitai in a kind of socially-acceptable but ordered and restrained gesture: a military salute.

Delightfully -- and outside of movie tradition -- Kitai doesn’t reciprocate.  

Instead, he hugs his father, an absolute assertion that sometimes emotionality, not mindfulness, is the key to life.   

Thus, like all children, Kitai has taken his father’s “lesson” and interpreted it in a way that is meaningful to him as an individual.  

That is the very rite-of-passage meted in the film: Kitai’s ability to understand his father’s choice, and then to make his own meaningful choice about whom he hopes to be.

The movie is about nothing more and nothing less than that kernel of an idea: one man’s way of seeing the world and his son coming to understand that “vision..." and divine his own belief system from it.

Sadly, you likely won’t read about any of this thematic substance in the majority of mainstream critical reviews.  Instead, the reviews for After Earth have been harsh, even savage.

That rampant negativity is a result, I suspect, of a perfect storm of bile and jealousy: the continuing backlash against Shyamalan (because he dared to trick us with The Sixth Sense [1999] and then minted a fortune), and the relatively fresh backlash against Will Smith and his son Jaden.

So if hating is the game, After Earth is a two-fer!

I should also state this fact: After Earth isn't a movie about Scientology.  I've read reviewers insist it's about Scientology because -- wait for it -- there's a volcano placed prominently in the action.  I suppose this means that Revenge of the Sith (a whole planet of volcanoes there!) is also about Scientology.  Who knew?

Perhaps more to the point, even if After Earth did feature principles of Scientology, would that fact immediately, a priori, render it a bad film?  Does the same rule apply to Catholicism or other branches of Christianity, or only to unpopular religions?

But I'm not in the business of defending movies, only watching them, interpreting them, and presenting my analysis.  Having seen and enjoyed the film, I conclude that it is a well-made, enjoyable “adventure for boys” (and girls too…) -- nothing more, nothing less --  with an authentic sense of humanity. It is a simple, straightforward "shipwreck" movie, and parts of the adventure reminded me of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson.  The production design is original and compelling, and the location shooting transforms Earth into the most vividly dangerous of wildernesses.

We live now in a culture of noisy, hectic movie blockbusters, where event piles upon events, where there are feints and counter-feints, and where “surprises” and reversals come at the audience by the dozen (and often in 3-D to boot).  We leave the theater after such films not exhilarated and moved, but throttled.

Refreshingly, After Earth doesn’t care about throttling you, or layering on a multitude of high-intensity incidents.   Instead -- and much like The Call of the Wild or White Fang -- the film simply and directly vets its adventurous tale of extraordinary survival, and of a father and son discovering each other.

The key is that After Earth accomplishes those tasks with heart, and a considerable degree of humanity.  It's a shame people aren't looking at the movie with open eyes and open hearts, but bitterness instead.  It's more fun, I suppose, to fit the movie into another edition of the "M. Night Shyamalan-has-lost-it" narrative than to grapple with the ideas the movie actually presents.

Frankly, I think the critics could use a lesson in mindfulness.  

So you may love After Earth, or you may hate it, I guess.  But when you watch  the film, at least do this much: drop your expectations and biases, be in the moment, and judge the work for yourself, and on its own merits.

Tomorrow: Our final entry in The Shyamalan Series: The Visit (2015).

1 comment:

  1. John.
    I have really by-passed the last several films based on what could be one of the most vicious narratives against a director in recent memory.

    Following a trio of early films I quite enjoyed especially Signs and a fourth film I enjoyed quite a bit to my surprise despite hearing a slough of negatives, The Village, I feel it's time I re-evaluate.

    I won't say I'm a victim (far too easy today in this political climate), but I definitely let myself believe the narrative and that's a wrong I need to right.

    I will be riding my bike to the library and picking the Blu-ray up for After Earth tomorrow. I'm all about blu-rays and bikes (old school). I will be watching After Earth this weekend. I look forward to it.

    Thanks for always being a voice of reason. 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 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.

    It is indeed sad.