Guilty Pleasures: After Earth

after earth

After Earth was almost universally derided as “the worst film of 2013” a vanity vehicle for Will Smith, or more precisely, his son Jaden, and a flat, empty spectacle, ploddingly directed by M. Night Shyamalan, thrown a bone by Smith after a string of self-created disappointments. Co-written by Gary Whitta, it seemingly follows computer game “levelling” (no real surprise as Whitta originally came from a gaming background). So I was reluctant to engage with it until it came on T.V recently. As I watched it, however, I was surprised to find this sci-fi parable isn’t quite the car crash I was led to believe.

The film posits that humanity, 1000 years hence, has abandoned a despoiled earth for a new colony world of Nova Prime (filmed in the Moab desert, Utah), where they attempt to learn from the past, adapting sympathetically to their surroundings. Dwellings resemble sleekly sailed schooners slicing through ochre rockfaces – production designer Tom Sanders recalledWe imagined that the people of Nova Prime were able to find minerals that fossilize like coral – we built those, imagining that these would grow and solidify into the structure of the building.” 

after earth nova prime

This utopian second chance has disturbed a hostile alien race, the S’Krell. They breed blind predatory creatures called Ursa, all teeth and claws, who hunt humans by sensing our fear. Smith Snr is a legendary commander of the Rangers, the metaphorically monikered General Cypher Raige, who has mastered the art of “Ghosting”. This act denies fear as a mere construct of the mind, thus, he becomes invisible to the Ursa and kills them – up close and impersonal. His adolescent son, Kitai, longs to join up and gain his austere father’s favour, believing that a family tragedy at the claws of their nightmare enemy has fractured any bond between them. A mother’s wisdom (Sophie Okonedo) suggests that a joint trip to another colony may be a chance to make amends until their ship is forced to crash land on the now quarantined and highly dangerous wilderness of Earth. The father, immobilised with broken legs in the wreckage, must guide his son via communications and probe camera footage on a perilous trek to the far- flung shorn off tail section. There he must retrieve an emergency beacon, little knowing a captured Ursa in the hold being transported for training purposes has escaped…

There is a philosophical and old-school call of the wild kind of vibe here, out of step with modern sensibilities, of itself no fault. Cypher preaches mindfulness to his son, an awareness of immediate surroundings and the happenings of the moment – a Buddhist belief, channelled also by Liam Neeson’s Jedi Master to his own apprentice, or Padawan, Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, in The Phantom Menace. Also, the notion of how, via mindfulness, one can remove fear from the equation (“Danger is real. Fear is a choice.”) echoes another famous Sci-fi standard, the ecological antecedent trial of James Herbert’s Dune – “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. ” Once I’d latched on to these ideas I settled back and allowed this deliberately stylised and beautifully imagined film’s clarity of purpose to wash over me.

At its heart, this is really a metaphor for parenting, about both letting go, and opening up. Imparting wisdom and life experience to the next generation, whilst also accepting that stoicism at the expense of mindfulness to the feelings of others is also a mind-killer. To return to that family tragedy, the killing of Kitai’s older sister by an Ursa in front of the boy while the father was absent, both father and son are experiencing signs of survivor guilt. Cypher remains closed off and distant, even at home, while Kitai is desperate to redeem himself in his father’s eyes. Naturally at some point communication will break down and Kitai must face the bogey-man alone, drawing upon his own strength and hopefully his father’s lessons.

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The sense of peril and danger to Kitai throughout is not on a par with most envelope – pushing of the 12A cert. these days, although two very brief moments suggest the beasts’ savagery – a flashback to his sister, impaled on claw and held aloft; and a ranger’s body, left hanging from a tree to spook the young castaway (thankfully not skinned, a la Predator!). Kitai’s brief thrill at a bat-winged descent from a vertiginous height is interrupted by a mid-air tussle from a hostile giant bird of prey. Even the apes are out to get the kid. At night temperatures plummet, and he has a limited supply of inhalers for the now debilitating atmosphere. This last is one touch that suggests dismissal of the film as Smith’s Scientology recruitment ad writ large is wrong – surely Scientology doesn’t believe in such measures?

The filmmakers sought locations with lush overgrowth for a now completely reclaimed wild Earth. The production filmed in two major locations: Humboldt Redwoods State Park in northern California and Costa Rica, specifically near the Arenal Volcano and the Sarapiqui River. They also shot glaciers in Iceland and the Eiger mountain in Switzerland, all augmented with sympathetic and seamless CGI.

The look and design of the film is unusual and beautiful, quite unlike most other science fiction films, although the Ranger bio-survival suit did remind me slightly of the Fremen desert survival stillsuit from Dune. Kitai skitters and leaps about huge fallen redwoods and rock faces, his “cutlass” (a multi-form hand to hand weapon whose many faceted blades retract into a tactilely pleasing wooden looking tube) attached to his back.

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The suit, as suggested by costume designer Amy Westcott (Black Swan), changes colour according to the wearer’s health, or external threat.

“A lot of my research centred around various beetles, and there are many things that they do that I used in the designing of the life suit,” she told Clothes On Film. “For instance, some turn black in danger, and some lose their colour when dying. Night liked the idea so much that he worked the whole colour changing idea into the script.

All of its other uses were in the script. The suit is commentary on how advanced their society is.

Amy Westcott's Life Suit design, illustrated by Brian Valenzuela

Amy Westcott’s Life Suit design

I based all of my research on nature. Everything that his suit could do was derived from something organic. For instance, the fabric of his “undersuit” was based on the underside of a mushroom. The mushroom gathers water for the plant using these gills. I replicated the look of the mushroom gills onto fabric with a 3 dimensional print to show that the suit collects water in the same way for the wearer.”

The spaceship, The Hesper, externally resembles a stingray, its innards an almost womb – like construct of curved bleached timbers and breathing membranes that Kitai must leave to stand on his own two feet.

Refreshingly, the Raige’s trial on Earth does not end with a gung-ho desire to tool-up together to kick further alien butt in revenge. The film subverts standard blockbuster practice when Cypher, in a call-back to an earlier encounter with a wounded veteran, demands to be raised up and salutes his son. Instead of reciprocating, Kitai gives him a hug, which he gives in to, laughingly agreeing with the boy that he doesn’t want to do this action man routine anymore either.

Originally posted 2016-04-25 22:16:13. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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