After Earth stands out brilliantly in a crowd of ho-hum summer blockbusters. Its nuanced portrayal of military family dynamics as well as its complicating of the homefront through its centering of the whole military family deftly raises the emotional stakes of the film’s action sequences. Plus, Kitai’s mom and sister are better developed and more emotionally nuanced characters than this present version of Uhura and Dr. Carol Marcus, both of whom have, like, 50 years of canon and characterization behind them. This, despite only having around 20 minutes of screen-time combined. While I would have loved it if both of these women had received more screen-time, they felt realized and separate from the men in their lives, particularly since Faia, Cypher’s wife and Kitai’s mom, is shown not just working, but enjoying her career.
Plot plot plot. Basically, humanity had to leave Earth because the pollution and environmental devastation we caused was such where the planet would survive, but no longer be safely habitable by humans. We set up colonies on another planet, and it was great! Everything changed
when the Fire Nation attacked when we discovered we weren’t the only kick-ass spacefaring species in the galaxy. Our new neighbors dropped by with cookies death, and only the Rangers could defend humanity against living weapons designed to hunt humans by tracking the scent of fear. Some Rangers, like Cypher Raige, the most famous and kick-ass of all, could “ghost” — effectively disappear as far as these living weapons were concerned by reaching a state where they were no longer afraid. Kitai, Cypher’s son, is way too emotional to ghost. He’s a 15 yr old Cadet who’s dealing with grief over the death of his sister (a Ranger who died saving him) and the deep seated fear that he’ll never be able to live up to her legacy of bravery and sacrifice, or to his father’s legacy of cool, calm courage. An accident in space traps Kitai and Cypher on Earth, where no human has lived in a thousand years. Their ship’s cargo included one of those weaponized aliens, now escaped. The emergency beacon necessary to signal for their rescue is 100k away, across a hostile landscape, with enemies lurking behind every leaf and cloud. Cypher is too injured to go for help. It’s up to Kitai to make this journey, face his own demons, and save himself and his father.
I really liked it! Here’s why:
Other things I liked:
1. I’ve seen some critics complaining about the cutlass, a liquid metal weapon/survival tool that has 50 or so different settings. They wanted guns and lasers. To me, the cutlass actually makes a fair amount of sense — it’s not a projectile weapon so you don’t have to worry about accidentally popping a hole in the plastic screen of the ship (we see one such screen form a seal for a breathing area after Ktai wakes up from the crash and starts to kind of suffocate), and because of its adaptability it’s a fantastic tool for fieldwork. It made me think, actually, of one of Bear Gryll’s survival knives — many types of edges along one blade, weighted for practicality and not for show. Also, the monster-weapons are blind, not deaf. Projectile weapons in SF are traditionally noisy both in use and on impact. Finally, Kitai is travelling light and fast, and is not himself a Ranger — while he might be familiar with projectile weapons, it might not be something he’s confident in or has had extensive training in use.
2. In contrast to the reboot of Star Trek, where Kirk seems to get out of trouble on the regular because of who his daddy is, it’s pretty explicit that Kitai’s Ranger school is a meritocracy. He’s denied advancement to the next level, even though people know and respect his father, because he himself is not Ranger material.
3. The ways he is not Ranger material are not demonized. SPOILERS BELOW:
On this journey out of boyhood, Kitai has three instances that I would say pretty conclusively demonstrate how he’s not Ranger material. In contrast to a lot of SF/F, these aren’t moments of weakness. Instead, they’re pivotal to the story and to documenting Kitai’s journey towards a fully realized adult self.
a. He lies to his father/commanding officer about his supplies. Early on, Kitai splashes into a river and some of his kit is damaged. He needs three vials of this stuff that helps him breathe in order to get to the emergency beacon safely; he had four; now he’s down to two. He’s pretty sure he can make it to the ship, and he knows that if he can’t, his father will die. He refuses to give up, even when ordered to, and embarks on what at that point is a suicide mission to save his father. After all, if all he’s got to do is make it to the ship to push the emergency beacon’s buttons so his dad can get help, he doesn’t need enough air to wait for rescue himself.
b. When captured by a hostile lifeform, he protects the small and helpless. During his travels, Kitai is caught by a giant bird, who drops him into her nest where her fledglings are hatching. He gets nibbled on a few times, and is understandably freaked out, but when he realizes that the nest is being attacked by hyena/puma hybrids, he defends the baby birds instead of using the distraction to continue with his mission. In doing so, he earns the gratitude of the mother bird, and she eventually saves his life (and sacrifices her own).
c. When Kitai ghosts, the focus is not on his bravery. Instead, it is on his grief. His sister, who was Ranger material, died defending him from the monster-weapon things when they attacked a human city. He’s felt constant guilt over her death — and blamed their father for it. During his adventures on Earth, he comes to grips with the kind of love that would lead to that kind of self-sacrifice, and both acknowledges her sacrifice as a gift of love and as ultimately hers to make.
4. This actually builds on 3c. Some critics were complaining about Jaden’s voice sounding so high-pitched and how he looks really young. I liked this. His sister, as well as the other Cadets we see at his school, are heartbreakingly young too. As newly promoted Rangers, these young women and men are the first line of defense in a war that appears to have no clearly defined battlefront. After all, not even their living room was safe. Youth is a sacrifice of war, and I think having someone who is obviously 15 act the part of a 15 year old CHILD in a world where that child is old enough to die for his people is incredibly poignant… particularly since in the US, the average age of enlistment is just 20. You can’t drink or rent a car, but you can risk your life, body, and sanity in another kind of war with an ambiguous front.
5. I’ve seen a couple bloggers talk about After Earth as Scientology propaganda, particularly because of its discussion of fear. I actually found Cypher’s discussions of emotions and emotionality more reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s Dune than anything else.