With M. Night Shyamalan and Will Smith (sort of) back in theaters together, now’s the perfect time to revisit the 2013 sci-fi flop.
Today, in cinemas across the country, audiences will sit down to enjoy their first Will Smith action movie in more than three years. Depending on the theater, some of these screenings may also include the trailer for Split, the upcoming psychological thriller by director M. Night Shyamalan. This will represent a bizarre reunion of sorts for the two Hollywood figures. Smith and Shyamalan had last partnered on Smith’s original concept for the 2013 science-fiction blockbuster After Earth, a movie widely regarded as among the worst of the two men’s separate careers. And since I’ve always harbored something of a lingering affection for the film, there seems like no better time than the present to re-watch After Earth and see if it really and truly was the disaster that everyone claimed it to be.
Let’s start with a little bit of history. To say that After Earth was a bomb is to do the word bomb a great kindness. While the film grossed almost $250 million in total, only $60 million of that came from domestic audiences (as compared to the movie’s $130 million dollar budget). The critical reception was somehow even less favorable; After Earth received an 11% on RottenTomatoes, a 33% on MetaCritic, and even managed to take home three Razzie Awards for good measure. Worse than that, the bad publicity surrounding star Will Smith opened the film up to criticism of its intentions as well as its execution. Over at Vulture, for example, film critic Matt Patches wrote a damning piece explaining why After Earth was Will Smith’s secret love letter to Scientology. It wasn’t enough that the film was bad; people found it to be hiding ulterior motives as well.
To fully appreciate the distaste people had towards After Earth, it’s important to understand the film’s place in the body of work of both the director and its two stars. First is filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. By the time After Earth hit theaters in May of 2013, Shyamalan’s reputation was at an all-time low. The film came on the heels of three consecutive critical failures – Lady in the Water, The Happening, and the unmatched disaster that was The Last Airbender — leading the director to effectively squander whatever goodwill he had built up with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Even setting aside the issues of nepotism that dogged the film, After Earth would still have faced an uphill climb to win over audiences skeptical of Shyamalan’s recent body of work.
For once, though, Shyamalan’s credit was not the most controversial aspect of the film. While Shyamalan may have hurt the film with critics, the presence of Jaden Smith as the film’s young lead absolutely crippled it. It was impossible to watch a trailer for After Earth without viewing the film as the elder Smith’s attempt to push his oldest son further into the family business. Richard Brody of The New Yorker called the film “a public affirmation that Will Smith is yielding the spotlight to Jaden.”Manohla Dargis of The New York Times lamented the need for Hollywood parents to gift their children with “nothing less than a big-screen vanity project.” Pick an outlet and you’ll find more of the same; Will Smith was using After Earth as the Jaden Smith launch party that no one had any interest in attending.
And if this baggage caused critics to approach the film with a bad taste in their mouth, it’s hard to blame them. I’m not suggesting that people went into After Earth with an axe to grind or the desire to knock the Smith family down a peg or two, but these types of negative headlines do have a way of narrowing the scope of the conversation. Film criticism has always contained an element of historiography, where writers not only try to provide an unbiased read on an individual work of art but also try and place it within the broader context of the artist’s career. For many, After Earth was just one more uneven movie by M. Night Shyamalan or one more public relations nightmare by Smith and his family. The flaws of the film are front-and-center; you’d have to be either crazy or stubborn as hell to defend the movie as more than a blockbuster fiasco.
Thankfully, I am that crazy. Or stubborn. Maybe you’ll tell me which.
After re-watching the film, my biggest disconnect with critics remains the assumed audience for the movie. After Earth belongs less to the mainstream audiences who popularized films like Men in Black and Unbreakable and more to the young adult audiences who turned The Hunger Games into box office gold. If we choose to focus on the elements of After Earth that fit within the YA subgenre, it can be viewed as a movie slightly ahead of its time rather than far behind it. Harry Potter and Twilight may have staked their claim to box office success in the years prior to After Earth’s release, but Hollywood did not begin to flood the market with YA dystopian fiction in earnest until the turn of the decade. The Hunger Games (2012), Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013), Divergent (2014), and The Maze Runner (2014) would all soon be competing for the same youthful audience, often with – shall we say – mixed results.
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So much of the film is devoted to Jaden Smith’s Katai Raige and Will Smith’s Cypher Raige trying to understand one another. Plenty of darkness bubbles beneath the surface; Cypher has a traditional view of masculinity and may not even realize he resents his son for living where his older sister died, while Katai has chased the shadow of his father so long he’s never really stopped to wonder where this obsession came from. On the macro level, After Earth is a film about Kitai absorbing (or rejecting) the values of adult society in order to protect himself, but much the decision-making by man and boy alike is driven by a crippling sense of guilt. This is the version of The Hunger Games where Katniss never volunteered as tribute and Primose died at the games. This is the wedge that has driven father and son apart.
This means that After Earth is not only rife with tropes lifted directly from Young Adult fiction, it also stands out as one of the better examples of the genre from the past decade. So many YA films pit their hero or heroine against a surrogate father figure so he or she can be seen in conflict with traditions and the values of the old society; After Earth is no different, only without all the unnecessary bloat and scale of its big-budget contemporaries. Even if we acknowledge that Jaden Smith is no Jennifer Lawrence or Shailene Woodley, his narrative – a survival story told from the perspective of a father’s acknowledged least favorite child – should appeal to anyone who has ever complained about the unnecessarily high stakes of the modern blockbuster. What’s more, Kiati Raige’s clear rejection of military service in the film’s final minute seems to stand as the ultimate act of individuality. It isn’t that Kitai was never meant to be a soldier; it’s that he proved himself on the battlefield and then made the conscious choice for expression over emotion control (undermining Matt Patches’s Scientology read along the way).
Like everything in life, it all comes down to a matter of choice, but I for one am quite willing to overlook the parts of After Earth that do not work in exchange for the parts of the film that do. Jaden Smith may be weak as the lead, but Will Smith is surprisingly sympathetic as the emotionally crippled father. The film hangs on the flimsy logic of pheromones as humanity’s ultimate weakness, but once the rules are established, faithfully sticks within the boundaries it has created for itself. And whether you can appreciate After Earth as a YA film or not, there is something altogether refreshing about a science-fiction film almost entirely devoid of white characters that also treats this fact as nothing worth calling attention to. After Earth was a nine figure summer blockbuster directed by an Indian-American filmmaker and lead almost entirely by two black actors. We’ve praised worse movies for less diversity; why not use this as your excuse to give After Earth a revisit sometime soon?