By Preston Wilder
Real-life parents and children playing variations on their actual relationship is a rare thing in films. Mostly it’s a by-product of the famous father (it’s usually a father) getting on in years, as if paying cinematic tribute to the old man – especially when there’s a suggestion of burying the hatchet, as with Henry and Jane Fonda in On Golden Pond. There are other examples: Kirk and Michael Douglas co-starred in a trifle called It Runs in the Family, Martin Sheen played Dad to real-life son Emilio Estevez in The Way. Jon Voight and Angelina Jolie will undoubtedly make a movie someday when (and if) they reconcile, and will both win Oscars for it.
After Earth, however, is slightly different – because Will Smith isn’t a senior citizen burnishing his legend by starring opposite his flesh and blood, and 14-year-old Jaden Smith (unlike Jane Fonda or Michael Douglas) isn’t an established star doffing his hat to a famous father. This is more like Will as impresario (or pushy parent), building a stage for Jaden – he co-produced, and wrote the original story – so he can stand on the sidelines going ‘That’s my kid!’. Critics and audiences in the US have reacted badly, feeling themselves hustled into aiding and abetting an act of Hollywood nepotism – yet the film is rather fascinating, both in itself (as an old-fashioned kids’ adventure) and as a metaphor for fathers and sons, specifically a controlling dad’s wish-fulfilment fantasy.
Will Smith is a bit of a control freak, at least in his screen persona; his last few films – especially Hancock, I Am Legend and The Pursuit of Happyness – have been existentialist tales of a man alone, battling against the odds, relying on no-one but his own resources. Shift that persona into fatherhood, and you get something like After Earth – a sci-fi drama where Will and Jaden are stranded alone on a desert planet and the boy goes on a quest to find the beacon that’ll save them while Dad, both legs broken, monitors his progress from a distance. It’s the perfect image for a domineering father who knows his little boy is growing up, yet is also determined to retain control as the kid spreads his wings. Write it as a comedy – maybe a sequel to Hitch – where suburban dad Will keeps tabs on Jaden when he goes on his first big date, and you have exactly the same movie.
Will knows all and sees all. “Root yourself to this present moment now!” he instructs his son, sounding like a Zen master. It’s a strange performance, making himself portentous by speaking very slowly with spaces between his words: “Fear. Is not. Real. It is a product. Of our imagination”. Jaden, on the other hand – in his second lead role, after The Karate Kid – is a light screen presence, which is both good and bad. “He’s a feeling boy. He’s an intuitive boy,” says his screen mother (Sophie Okonedo) – but he’s also a very boyish boy, uncomfortable with too much drama, happiest when scaling rocks or fording rivers. He’s a loose, unselfconscious actor – you could call him ‘a natural’ – but I reckon he should follow in his father’s footsteps and start out in comedy.
The mystery ingredient is director M. Night Shyamalan, whose style is much closer to the serious self-absorption of Smith Sr. than the carefree energy of Smith Jr. Shyamalan points up the back-story – father and son both feel guilty over the death of their daughter/sister – and indulges his trademark tic of slow-paced exposition scenes with no music on the soundtrack, giving the film a serious veneer it doesn’t fully deserve. But he also gets some strong images (a thorn-tree with corpses impaled on every branch) and builds on the eco-theme he attempted in The Happening, the catch being that the desert planet is Earth – a futuristic but also prelapsarian Earth with no humans, just flocks of birds and herds of buffalo, not to mention those happy whales in the final shot.
After Earth is a reasonably thrilling adventure. The kid gets poisoned, paralysed and half-frozen. Dad tries a DIY arterial shunt on his shattered leg and rejects painkillers – which would make him sleepy – in order to be a good dad (“Dad, are you there?”). Possible predators include a giant bird (who turns out to be a parent himself), a pack of monkeys and of course the ‘Ursa’, a blind monster who kills by sensing fear.
But the film’s real power comes in the central relationship – because Will has no fear, that’s how he can overcome Ursas (he can “ghost”, in future parlance), and Jaden has to learn how it’s done, must become a man and indeed a he-man. Can the martinet dad turn his eager-to-please son into a version of himself even as he lies dying, his control rapidly slipping? Will the son ultimately find his own way? That’s how it goes with fathers and sons – pulling at each other in mutual ambivalence, respect shading into resentment, mentorship into manipulation. No wonder they don’t like to play themselves in films.
DIRECTED BY M. Night Shyamalan
STARRING Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo
US 2013 100 mins