Fear is not an alien theme in the films of M. Night Shyamalan. The auteur has explored fear of the intangible and tangible, the fear of chaos and the fear of complacency. In After Earth, Night brings fear to the forefront. What was originally conceived as a modern day-set vehicle for Will and Jaden Smith to star as a father and son stranded in the wilderness of Alaska, later turned into a high-concept, big budget science fiction film set on a "post-human" Earth. Smith Sr., serving as producer, was allegedly very involved in the screenwriting process and writer Gary Whitta was integrated into the pre-production by Smith himself who was impressed with his work on 2009‘s The Book of Eli. With Night being brought onto the project later on as director/writer the deviations between Night‘s more authorial works and After Earth can be felt, but only to a lesser extent as both the core father-son relationship and the personal journey Smith Jr.‘s Kitai undergoes during his near-suicide mission brush very close to what Night had been working with in his career up to that point. The way the narrative plays out feels more procedural and traditionally structured than Night usually lets on in his stories, but as with each of his succeeding films the development of previously gestured thematics is there. The film‘s title refers to a world that rejected the humanity that occupied it and has now become overgrown with dangerous wildlife. This calls back to The Happening‘s preoccupation with nature turning against us, albeit from a different angle, and The Village‘s community of people returning to a "simpler" life, as Kitai is challenged to work with broken tools and to live in coercion with the dangers of the natural world. The theme of regaining a purpose or "life“ in correlation with regaining a touch with nature has been touched upon countless of times in art, yet one unsettlingly feels it become frequently more relatable as a fantasy and as escapism than a reflection of reality, so setting the story of After Earth as a coming-of-age narrative potentially awards it further nuance. In this context Smith Jr.‘s Kitai is an apt continuation of The Last Airbender‘s Aang.
Yet another youngster forced to bear the burden of adults on his shoulder‘s (now with more external angst), Jaden‘s performance is brimming with emotion and earnesty. Night is aware enough of the young actor‘s strengths to know that letting his expressive eyes magnetize the attention in-frame is the strongest play because, arguably, he has made a Hollywood career out of relaying focus on his actors‘ strengths in the editing room. If previous performances hadn't convinced, Smith Sr. proves his charisma isn‘t reliant on movement or facial (all-caps) expression, but blinding confidence and aura as the screenplay has him trapped in a single location for the majority of the runtime. One‘s minds wanders towards his heavy and stern delivery of a speech Cypher makes to his son... "fear is a choice"... Smith is a pure movie star, able to embed the blunt dialogue that could be taken directly out of an AA pocket-manifesto with unpretentious dramatic flair and nuance. Cypher is a man without fear of the external and, by extension, a man who shuns emotion rooted in fear, but Smith‘s pauses and glances subtly ground him in humanity.
In retrospect, Cypher doesn't really serve a mentorial role to Kitai aside from his speech as much as that of an obstacle in Kita‘s mind. The father-son relationship is built around Kitai‘s feelings of inadequacy next to his fearless father, as he aims to prove to Cypher that he can overcome his demons like Cypher did his. He ends up succeeding not by consciously emulating or avoiding his father‘s triumphs, but by disobeying him. Kitai progresses to inner peace by interacting the antagonistic flora of Earth in his way. "He‘s a feeling boy" his mother says of him to Cypher, echoing both Prince Zuko‘s relationship with his father and his troubled emotional state ("He says I‘m like my mother") in Night‘s previous film The Last Airbender and like many of Night‘s prior protagonists Kitai succeeds in gaining control by letting his previously suppressed feelings flow outwards, he makes the decision to not let his traumatic past determine or immobilize his potential in the now. Only when he realizes fear is the one thing holding him back, not inadequacy, can he overcome the alien predator that caused him the trauma in the first place.
Giving credit where it is due, supporting players James Newton Howard (Night‘s go-to composer) and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky are invaluable to the emotional mise en scène of the narrative. Howard‘s previous collaboration with Night on The Last Airbender was a masterpiece, and while his score for After Earth doesn't reach those heights it weaves an unmissable tapestry around essential moments for highlighting (the magic a simple piano theme can work on otherwise silent moments...). The way Suschitzky captures the interiors of the utopian science fiction capitol world feels eerily similar to Janusz Kaminsky‘s work on Spielberg‘s A.I. with the illumination of grays and browns subtly reflecting on the faces of the protagonists while rendering the threshold between the practical and green screen sets close to invisible. Once the narrative reaches Earth these illuminations are scaled back and the green forest landscapes, the blue skies and occasional brushstrokes of white take over. Only when the screenplay pits Kitai against the CGI omen that haunts his memories does the color pallet revert back to the gray, with volcanic ashes overwhelming the frame around the young cadet and colliding his internal anxieties with his external ones. It‘s as classically expressionistic as modern blockbusters get.
But all things considered After Earth is a tentpole blockbuster only in budget and occasional scale. What Shyamalan, Whitta and the Smiths made is a coming-of-age action film more reminiscent of Rossellini‘s Journey To Italy and Malick‘s The New World than the modern blockbuster template, albeit in the now more frequently seen post-Phantom Menace/Attack of the Clones way. However unlikely, if After Earth ends up Night‘s last big-budgeted film in the current cycle of blockbuster cinema, it‘s an exemplary one.