By Garrett Platner
SPOILERS BELOW (For the peeps who haven’t seen the movie.)
I recently came across a new Sci-Fi movie called After Earth. I didn’t really know too much about it except what I saw in the occasional trailer or TV spot. This marks the first foray into screenwriting for Will Smith and I gotta say, the first time’s a charm. Not only did he write this pantheon of science fiction, he starred in it as well alongside his eldest son, Jaden. The movie is directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Mr. Shyamalan has had his issues in the past, but this movie is his path to redemption. Let’s get right into: After Earth.
As the movie opens, we are introduced to Kitai Raige, played by Jaden Smith. Kitai recounts the story of Earth’s demise. Jaden’s narration during this scene is unparalleled. As Ron Howard would attest to, narration is the key to any good story, and Jaden delivers it in spades. After the destruction of Earth’s environment, humanity must evacuate Earth and colonize a new world, Nova Prime. One thousand years later, conflict occurs when another race, the S’krell, are angered because they called dibs on Nova Prime. They unleash their perfect killing machines, the Ursa, to eradicate the Earthlings. Through Kitai’s narration, we learn of the super-soldier and Ranger, Cypher Raige. Cypher was the first person to discover a technique known as “Ghosting.” Ghosting makes you invisible to the Ursa since their only mode of detection is through sensing fear. Cypher also happens to be Kitai’s father. Cypher teaches the other rangers how to Ghost and they are able to defeat the Ursa threat. Through this narration, we come to truly understand the kind of leader that Cypher Raige is, fearless and always in command. Cypher is up there with the likes of Captain Jean Luc Picard and Luke Skywalker when it comes to leadership and determination.
Kitai is attending Ranger training. We come to learn that he is an excellent student, but he is not ready for the field yet because he cracks under pressure too easily. As a result of this, he fails the test to be considered a Ranger. Jaden displays excellent determination and will for wanting to become a Ranger. He professes that his father will be upset if he goes home and he isn’t one. If there’s one thing that super-soldier Cypher Raige doesn’t tolerate, it’s failure.
Cypher returns home from his mission and spend some time with his wife, Faia. Kitai informs him that he was unable to pass the Ranger test. Cypher says it is fine and that he is young and will pass it eventually. Faia convinces Cypher to take Kitai on his last mission on Iphitos, presumably to help teach him. Faia also wants Cypher to be a better father to Kitai. Here we can see the inner struggle of Cypher, expertly acted by Will Smith. Will portrays the soldier who wants to show love to his son, but is terrified to get close because of the past. Will’s eyes and body language expertly convey the emotional turmoil that has been the life of Cypher Raige, super-soldier and father. I need to point out that great performances can partially be attributed to great directing, and Mr. Shyamalan’s influence is definitely reflected in Cypher’s damaged soul.
While Kitai and Cypher are preparing to board the ship that will take them to Iphitos, a man whose life was saved by Cypher wanted to salute him. The man lost a leg, but demanded to be stood up so he could properly thank the demi-god, Cypher Raige. Demanding to be stood up and saluting Cypher is the ultimate sign of respect, and Shyamalan will remember this later in the film. Once aboard the ship, Kitai sneaks into a restricted area and demands to know what is being held in the cage. The guards are hesitant at first, but realize he is the son of a living legend and bring him up close to the top secret cage. Inside the cage is an Ursa to be used to teach Rangers how to Ghost. As they explain, “Ghosting is when you don’t have a trace of fear in you.” Here, we see Kitai’s determination to face the Ursa, but his inability to do so. The people were right to not promote Kitai to Ranger, he is clearly not ready for the field. Cypher feels vibrations that the computers cannot even detect. His super-human powers are not limited to just ghosting and fighting. He feels uneasy because of the “graviton vibrations” and feels that a crash is imminent. Since Cypher Raige is never wrong, the pilots are aware that they are about to crash. The ship gets caught in an asteroid storm and begins to be torn apart. Cypher forces them to initiate a wormhole jump to get away from the storm. This jump unfortunately takes them toward Earth. Cypher hopes they can find another landing site, but they are unable and the ship crash lands on the planet.
When Kitai awakes, he is seemingly the only survivor. To his surprise, Kitai finds Cypher alive. Both of Cypher’s legs are fractured. This would stop any normal person, but not Cypher Raige, savior of the masses. Unfortunately, the emergency beacon was smashed in the crash and the only other one is in the tail section of the ship, which crashed miles away. Also unfortunate is the fact that God-King Cypher Raige is unable to walk and cannot get to the tail section. He must put his fate in the hands of his untrained son, Kitai. Shyamalan creates some excellent social commentary here by showing that fathers must pass their knowledge onto their sons. He also shows that if we do not become more environmentally conscious, our planet will turn on us. He hinted at this in another movie of his, The Happening, but he perfects is in this film. Cypher warns Kitai that everything on the planet evolved to kill humans. He shows us that Mother Nature will eventually take back what is hers. Cypher readies his son to make the trek, giving him his double bladed melee weapon, a communicator, and oxygen fluid so Kitai can breathe in the hostile atmosphere of a once proud Earth. Before Kitai sets out, Cypher explains to him that he must get to a “hotspot” before night falls. The entire planet flash freezes once the sun goes down. If he does not reach a hotspot in time, he will freeze to death.
Most of the movie is intercut with Cypher and Kitai remembering an Ursa attack on their home in which Cypher’s daughter, Senshi, was killed. Although we do not see the full extent of the attack yet, Shyamalan’s expert ability to foreshadow events allows us to know how things are going to be revealed. This is an important cut because Cypher is struggling not to take pain killers. If he takes them, he will not be able to properly direct Kitai because we will become delirious or pass out. Any normal human would succumb to pain and take the medicine, but Cypher Raige is a cut above the rest. He shuts out the pain and focuses on the mission. While making the trek, Kitai gets surrounded by a group and mean looking baboons who clearly do not like this invader in their territory. They begin to chase Kitai, but he manages to lose them eventually. Even though there is no immediate danger, Kitai keeps running for his life. Cypher is yelling at him to stop running and calm down. He needs to get his emotions in check, like his father is a master of doing. Kitai eventually stops, only to discover that a poisonous leech has latched onto him. He shakes the leech free, but its toxin has already begun to work its way into his bloodstream. Kitai starts to lose feeling in his limbs and loses the ability to see. He starts freaking out, even though Cypher is in his ear, telling him that he needs to inject the anti-toxin into his heart. He finally manages to use the ground to jam the needle into his heart, shortly before he passes out. Will and Jaden perfectly play off of each other in this scene. They are able to convey the father/son relationship through acting ability and the fact that they are actually father and son.
Night fall is upon them. Cypher tries to wake Kitai up to warn him that the flash freeze is coming and that he must rush to a hotspot. He finally manages to wake Kitai up just before the freeze. Kitai quickly makes his way into a cave before the freeze sets in. Kitai notices that half of his vials of breathing fluid have been destroyed, but refuses to tell Cypher for fear of being seen as weak. We see Cypher still in incredible pain. He manages to keep the pain in check by remembering the attack on his house from years before. We learn that the attack happened on his daughter’s birthday and Cyper was out on a mission. Kitai was very young, probably 4 or 5, at the time of the attack. Cypher blames him for hiding and not being strong enough to protect his family. We learn that even Demi-Gods like Cypher Raige can feel emotional pain. During the night, Cypher recounts the tale of the first time he Ghosted to Kitai. This was is not only an important motivational tool for Kitai, but it also allows the audience to see the turning point for humanity. We get to see the ascension of Cypher Raige from good soldier, to guardian angel of the human race. We get to see the day Cypher Raige became more than just a man, he became a legend. In this scene, we also get the tagline for the movie, which is also a meaningful phrase to live life by. “Fear is not real. Danger is very real, but fear is a choice.” Not only is this helpful for Kitai, it reverberates into our lives.
The next morning, once the planet thaws, Kitai finds the dead bodies of the baboons stacked in a pile. He assumes the Ursa must have been here. Cypher figures out that Kitai has been hiding the fact that his breathing fluid is running low. He orders him back to the ship and says the mission has failed. Kitai exclaims that he can make it, but Cypher orders him to return anyway. Kitai screams that he is not a coward and that the death of his sister was not his fault and leaps off the cliff to perform an extremely dangerous air jump to cut down on time. While gliding, Kitai is attacked by a giant eagle. He tries to escape, but the eagle is too much for him to handle and he is knocked out. When he awakens, Kitai finds himself in the nest of the eagle with several baby eagles. The entire nest is surrounded by hungry giant tigers. Kitai does his best to protect the babies, but the tigers get to them anyway and kill them before being chased off by the eagle. The eagle, grateful for Kitai’s help, allows him to leave, unharmed. It is fair to assume that this is incredibly symbolic of the American spirit. The eagle represents the American spirit and the desire to protect.
Upon leaving the eagle’s nest, Kitai realizes that his communicator is broken. Cypher can still receive video, but he can’t communicate. This leads to Cypher then recording a message for his wife, incase the wreckage is ever found. It seems Cypher has given up on Kitai reaching the destination. The almighty Cypher Raige is beginning to crack, it would seem.
Kitai holds up in a cave and goes over the mission in his head, trying to stay mentally stable and block out fear. The next morning, he takes the last of his breathing fluid and build a raft to float down the river. Kitai lays down on the raft and dreams of his sister. Senshi doesn’t blame Kitai for her death. She wants him to get up and keep going. She yells at him to wake up and he finally rouses from his slumber. He gets up, but the flash freeze starts to set in and he passes out from the cold. He wakes up in a hotspot and it is apparent that the eagle has saved him, but was killed by the cold. Going back to the eagle being the American spirit, we can clearly see here that Shyamalan is saying that the American spirit will always be there to save us all. By the time Kitai gets to the ship, he is having real trouble breathing. Luckily, he finds the compartment with the breathing fluid and is able to take some. While searching for the beacon, Kitai finds the Ursa cage cracked open. Meanwhile, the injuries are really starting to take their toll on Cypher. He is starting to have fever dreams about his family. Being the amazing metahuman that he is, Cypher is able to shrug these off and try to make contact with Kitai who has found the beacon and is trying to talk to him. Cypher can hear Kitai, but is unable to respond due to electrical interference. Kitai realizes he must climb the nearby mountain in order to get the signal out.
One his way up the mountain, Kitai is finally attacked by the Ursa when he is in the process of activating the beacon. He doesn’t know if the beacon activated and he is having severe trouble suppressing his fear. Cypher is trying to lend emotional support, but since he can’t communicate, Kitai must do this on his own. When all hope seems lost, Kitai sees Senshi who tells him it is time to let go of his fear. The Ursa loses sense of Kitai. He is finally taking everything he learned and is Ghosting. Kitai has finally ascended to greatness. He dances circles around the Ursa and finally strikes for the kill. The beacon activated and the rescue team finally arrives to save Kitai and Cypher. Aboard the ship, Cypher demands to be stood up to salute his son, who has saved his life. Kitai has finally earned the respect from his father that he so desired.
In all aspects, After Earth is a masterpiece of cinema. The acting, story, cinematography, and symbolism are paralleled by very few. More than any of this though, After Earth has heart. It weaves a wonderful story or redemption, forgiveness, family, survival, and courage. Will Smith excels in his first foray into screenwriting. Jaden Smith happily and competently accepts the torch that is passed to him from his father. M. Night Shyamalan exhibits the greatness that many expected of him. His rise from the ashes starts with this film and it is a very steep rise. Never before have I seen a movie that sucked me into the plot and made me feel so much for the characters. After Earth is a milestone in the careers of these three men and will undoubtedly stand the test of time. I look forward to another collaboration between them and and eagerly awaiting a sequel to this masterpiece.