"After Earth," the new summer blockbuster from Will Smith and his 14-year-old son Jaden (oh, and director M. Night Shyamalan), is many things: a lackluster sci-fi action movie, a father/son vanity project, and crucial on-the-job training for a future A-lister. But according to a recent and wonderfully bizarre interview, the tale of a father helping his son navigate deadly terrain is also a metaphor for the Smiths' experiences in Hollywood. And you thought it was just a vanity project.
The story, which Will concocted, takes place a thousand years in the future, after nebulous cataclysmic events forced humanity to leave Earth for Nova Prime, a mildly more habitable planet where the native species, called Ursas, can literally smell fear and aren't too happy about their new planetmates. But when Kitai Range (Jaden), a second-generation Army brat, and his legendary father Cypher (Will) head out for a routine mission and a little father/son bonding, this time it's Will who's on the receiving end of a rude welcome to Earth after their ship crash-lands on the now-abandoned planet. And with Cypher critically injured, it's up to Kitai to save the day, while his father guides him remotely from their wrecked ship.
But is there really more to "After Earth" than just questionable plotting and so-so CGI? To find out, I tried to decipher the true meaning behind the film.
1. Is There a Twist?
There is, and it's a big one: that "After Earth" is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, and it's the most closely guarded secret in the film judging from the trailers -- presumably to delay the inevitable "Shyamalan groan." But while the much-maligned filmmaker did indeed direct and co-write the film (according to the credits), this is the Smiths' movie all the way. Shyamalan is more of a hired gun, and directs accordingly.
2. Earth Is Hollywood
So if "After Earth" really is an allegory for Will trying to help Jaden find his way in the film industry, that makes Earth into planet Hollywood. Everything there has evolved to kill humans, according to Cypher, which is weird since there aren't any of them around anymore, but I digress. Either way, this certainly sounds enough like the movie business, which, thanks to the evolution of Internet snark, doesn't need many excuses to bury a film these days. Jaden is wisely counseled to watch his step.
3. The Spaceship Is a Script
And a pretty flimsy one at that, since the ship in "After Earth" is seemingly made entirely out of cloth, straw and sheets of thin plastic, like it was designed by the Three Little Pigs. Same goes for the movie's script, which is held together by random coincidences and convenient timing. It's no wonder both crash. And when they do, it forces the father and son duo to survive on their wits alone.
4. Kitai's Mission Is to Save the Movie
Supposedly Will came up with this story while Jaden was filming "The Karate Kid," which makes perfect sense. The big-budget remake was Jaden's first solo mission, and a chance to show that he could follow in his father's footsteps. And while Will was around to offer advice, he had to do so from the sidelines. Likewise, Kitai's on his own for most of "After Earth," while Cypher either dozes off in his chair or wakes up long enough to bark orders at him. And if he fails, the youngster is supposed to abort the mission and go into "escape and evade protocol" -- also known as "take the paycheque and run."
5. The Shrieking Baboons Are Paparazzi
Early on in "After Earth," Kitai's surrounded by a crowd of howling baboons, which ought to be pretty familiar to a young actor getting his first taste of the media throng. And as Kitai learns, how you treat them determines how they'll treat you. They may be loud and obnoxious, but they'll only attack if provoked.
6. Leeches Are Hangers-On
And if you don't get rid of them fast, both can poison you. This one's pretty self-explanatory, but hey, no one's going to accuse "After Earth" of being particularly nuanced.
7. The "Hot Spots" Are an Actor's Trailer
Because future Earth is prone to huge temperature fluctuations, dropping to well below freezing overnight, it's crucial for Kitai to find a safe place to rest. Somewhere warm, comfortable and spacious. Though the cave he eventually finds is slightly smaller than the double-decker trailer Will takes with him on set.
8. Kitai Wants to Learn How to "Ghost"
"Ghosting" is what the movie calls it when you're able to go into battle without fear. Or in other words, when you're routinely featured on Forbes' annual list of the highest-earning actors.
9. The Giant Bird Is Jaden's Management Team
Granted, this might seem like a stretch, considering said bird tries to eat Kitai at first. But in both cases, they're willing to lay down and die for the young man, even though it makes absolutely no sense.
10. The Ursas Are Studio Heads
It all adds up: the penchant for making examples out of people, the ability to smell fear (or maybe I'm thinking of dogs), and the fact that true movie stars like Will Smith aren't afraid of them. They don't even have to do questionable futuristic accents if they don't want to. "After Earth" isn't going to push Jaden into that league, but it does prove that when your dad is Will Smith, you don't have to be afraid of giant alien monsters, or expensive flops.
"After Earth" opens in theatres on May 31.