Originally published on Letterboxd, predictably with no likes. Watched for the second time on September 16, 2013. Jaden’s subsequent experimentation with gender presentation makes my take on After Earth even more credible.
Most of the negative reviews of this film, and some of the few positive ones, focus on a handful of “issues”: its being a “M. Night Shyamalan film” and what that means, and on how many ways we can make fun of that; on the accusation that Will Smith is engaging in nepotism by giving top billing to his son; some sniggering remarks about scientology; and some unnecessarily cruel comments on Jaden Smith’s supposedly awful performance.
The first two and fourth I consider irrelevant. I didn’t even realize After Earth was directed by M. Night Shyamalan until I saw the end credits. Surprised, and not a fan, I just shrugged. The third issue of nepotism is specious. I wonder how many fathers in the same position would not do the same. We’re not talking about cabinet appointments, after all.
The last one is just wrong. I seem to have heard and witnessed an entirely different performance from the one seen by Ben Sachs, for instance, who claims young Smith’s line readings seem like he’s reading from cue cards. I’ve watched the film twice, the second time more alert than the first, since I respect Sachs, but I don’t see it.
Jaden is a gifted physical actor, particularly when he’s responding to CG environments, monsters and animals, and when he’s navigating natural geography. But also, he plays and performs as an age-appropriate boy, which is not at all the style to be expected from children in Hollywood films. More typically, he would be required to be a lot more badass and masculine. A mini Will Smith, maybe; an action hero. But since one notable thing I think the film tries to do is foil gender expectations for young boy heroes, something Shyamalan attempted and failed to do in The Last Airbender, the contempt poured on Jaden from all sides for his portrayal strikes me as telling. (The anime Airbender does it a lot better, not least because there are elements of parody in it but also a deep moral commitment to non-violence.)
The character’s mother describes Kitai to his father Cypher as “a feeling boy, he’s an intuitive boy,” words which Dad responds to uncomfortably. When I read phrases like “cringe-worthy” used to describe Jaden’s performance, seems like its mirroring Cypher’s, and we can speculate on the common heterosexist causes of that discomfort. A review you’ll find here on Letterboxd says: All of Earth’s creatures want to kill Jaden Smith… and I don’t blame them. That’s not ideology talking? Why don’t you just go ahead and call him a sissy? More examples could be cited, depressingly numerous.
Another notable aspect of the film universally ignored by critics is its complex depiction of a black family, and principally, father and son. It immediately reminded me of Ben Cisco and Jake in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Kendra James talks about the importance and rarity of such a relationship here on Racialicious. It helped me understand the importance of a similar relationship in After Earth. Complex relationships between black fathers and black sons are even rarer in cinema than they are on TV. Given that the genre here is sci-fi and that Will and Jaden are real-life father and son, it’s not much of a stretch that these references and concerns are there and used by the filmmakers, and I’m including Will Smith in that category. If you’ve seen real-life father and son on talk shows, you’ve already witnessed the almost over-the-top affection and fine rapport that dad and son have, to the frequent, somewhat faux embarrassment of Jaden. That rapport carries over into After Earth, so much so that the accusations of sentimentality attached to this uncommon depiction of black father & son strike me as, being kind, rather clueless.
However, I think at least one origin of the accusation of bad performance comes from misunderstanding or not apprehending that the character himself is performing. He’s flunked out of being a ranger, yet his dad – his dad – still insists on addressing him as cadet, even in the film’s denouement. Kitai responds in kind, usually: Yes, sir; copy; roger, etc. He’s stiff and formal because it’s what’s expected from a son of General Cypher, all while his constantly changing facial expressions, and they are wonderful, tell the real story.
Even after he’s managed to leave aside his fear – which is fear of a lot of things, not least his father’s expectations – and “ghost” his way to defeating the human-hating monster intent on destroying him, he still elects to work with his mother, foregoing the expected macho, military career which has turned his father into an automaton.
After Earth is by no means a great film. I was mystified by the chintzy production design and very few of the actors managed to work that unconvincing and inexplicable sorta-Southern accent of the future. Also, I have no idea why the flash-forward was even necessary in the film’s beginning. But it’s also far from the inept mechanistic mess that its critics claim. Instead, they come off as being, not only clueless, but rather heartless and reactionary as well.