Walking out of movies, I often disagree with the sentiments of the crowd. As they enthuse “That was so awesome!” and “Great action scenes!,” I silently bemoan the lack of female characters, the unnecessary booty shots (as in the recent Star Trek: Into Darkness), and the preponderance of blow-em-up-and-kill-em-dead scenes.
As I left the theatre following After Earth, the new Will and Jaden Smith movie venture, I disagreed with audience sentiment, but for different reasons. As I heard people complaining the movie was too slow, didn’t have enough action, that there wasn’t enough death, I was thinking about how great the father/son relationship was depicted, about the sister so strong she protects her brother even after death, about the tech-genius mom who lures her son and husband away from the warrior world of killing aliens.
My fondness for the film was not shared by those exiting the theatre with me – nor is it shared by other critics – at least none that have reviewed the film yet. Instead, the general reaction seems to be “yawn.”
Now, the fact some audiences judge how good a movie is by death count aside…what worries me about movies (and thrilled me about After Earth) circulates around the fact that most movies are still telling us the same old regressive, outdated, power-happy stories where men rule the universe and women get naked (or rescued). Even in futuristic, fantasy, sci-fi, super-hero and animated movies, where there is the possibility to rewrite what humanity, gender, race, existence and so on mean, more movies than not stick to the same script. Man is hero. Woman is in background. Person of color is villain. America is savior. “Others” whether they be aliens, monsters, foreigners, LGBTQ, or simply from a different neighborhood, are killed off or assimilated.
This is where After Earth is different. Yes, it has male heroes, but it also has female ones. The heroes are people of color. The “savior” is not a nation or even a planet, but a family that loves one another. There are some evil Others (ursa aliens) but the film shows that assuming evil/malice on the part of Others often is misguided – as when the young Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) assumes the bird who will ultimately save his life is trying to kill him (this savior bird is a female while the evil ursa is a he – another nice flip of the usual script).
At the outset of the movie, we learn earth has been destroyed as images of destruction flood the screen. The images are not futuristic, but of present-day earth – humans attack one another, cars wash away in giant tsunami waves, animals struggle in the latest sludge dump from yet another mega-corporation. In contrast, the sleek world of Nova Prime (the planet humans have relocated to) looks like a lovely location kitted out by Ikea.
The United Ranger Corps (the new global military) could serve as an advertisement for diversity – they are male and female, racially diverse, differ in age and size. This future force is not your typical muscled-up, all-male fighting force. This might seem like a small matter, but how often are such filmic elite forces represented with the true diversity that makes up our world? Hardly ever. Further, how often do they not have guns? This military core does NOT have guns (nor the futuristic equivalent of guns). And this is exactly what disappoints many film critics.
While some grieve the lack of action scenes, referring to the “potential” for “intense action sequences” that bewilderingly are not taken advantage of (“it cashes in on only a few of them,”) others caustically lament the lack of guns, as here: “the script …fails to explain why future warriors, whose technology allows for a ‘cutlass’ whose two ends morph into any type of blade the user requires, choose not to use guns or lasers against the mighty Ursa. One assumes it’s because somebody saw Darth Maul and thought his double-trouble light saber looked cool.” Yeah, because choosing NOT to use guns is flat out CRAAAAZZZZY.
So, what did I, unlike other reviewers, like about this film?
For one, there is a powerful mother in it. She is not dead. She is not evil. She is not a cartoon of femininity. (Disney, I am talking to you.) No. She is smart, articulate, say-it-as-it-is woman. I would bet she is a feminist. She has no qualms about telling her warrior husband Cypher Raige (Will Smith) that he is failing as a father, informing him “that boy in there is trying to find you…he doesn’t need a commanding officer, he needs a father.”
And the fact the film is critical of Cypher for being such a gung-ho warrior, right down to mocking hyper-masculinity via his symbolic last name, Raige? Swoon. And that it ends with the battle weary Kitai telling his Prime Commander father that he no longer wants to be a Ranger but instead work with his tech-savvy mom? That when he says “dad, I want to work with mom,” Cypher responds “me too”? Double triple swoon.
Further, as my daughter pointed out on our drive home, the film showed heroes need more than strength and weapons – they need strategy and smarts and drive – and they need each other – as when Cypher and Kitai must help one another in order to survive, despite the animosity and hard-feelings that have built up over the years. These are no Iron Men or Men of Steel or whatever other HARD MALE super-hero you want to throw in the mix. No, they are neither uber-hard or uber-male. Rather, they are human. How sad that such a depiction is so rare in this genre of movie as to seem like a revelation.
More sad still is that reviewers are bewailing that Jaden is not ‘man enough’ to be an action hero, as in the New York Daily News review that quips “It’s not Jaden’s fault his voice is still a few octaves too high for an action star, but it doesn’t do him any favors when his character is lifted to the nest of a giant eagle that decides to mother him.” Ah, yes, how emasculating! A less-than-baritone voice and being mothered! What are these reviewers drinking? Straight testosterone with a chaser of misogyny?!?
Such critics do not mention the depiction of family relationships the film proffers. I suppose such matters don’t have enough “action” to be worthy of comment. But, the exploration of family the film offered included something not often explored in films – dealing with the death of a sibling. Young Kitai is still traumatized by watching his older sister Senshi (Zoe Isabella Kravitz) be brutally impaled by an alien, and his father still blames him for it. Said sister visits him in his dreams as he makes his dangerous trek across the now hostile earth, saving his life by waking him up when needed.
As for the father/son relationship at the heart of the film? While I was besotted by the crash scene in which dad Cypher helps the panicking Kitai breathe through his mask, I was equally enamored of the many other scenes that captured something that is not a mainstay of the big screen – a father’s love for his son. Here, and throughout, the film was refreshingly free of macho bravado. In fact, the various nods to Moby Dick in the film hint that Cypher is debilitated by his own hunger for power, much like Captain Ahab and his relentless quest for the great white whale. (Moby Dick is the only “real” book the Raige family has ever seen in the post-book world of Nova Prime)
As with that literary classic, the film has its philosophical moments. Cypher’s refrain to his son is “take a knee” – an action that calls for kneeling down to the ground to “root yourself in this present moment.” Intoning “recognize your power…this will be your creation,” Cypher is like a more serious, more male Oprah, cheering on his son with the power of now. In another part of the film, he echoes the sentiment that we create our own realities, noting that we are “telling ourselves a story.”
If there is truth in this idea, that we at least partially create our reality by the stories we tell ourselves, then we had better worry about the fact many film critics and film goers seem to want stories saturated with violence and action – where the violence should be action-packed and the action should be violent.
Films are telling us all a story, stories which shape our experiences of – and expectations about – reality. I enjoy stories like those told in After Earth – stories where parents love their children, where sisters protect their brothers, where giant mother birds morn the violent deaths of their baby birds so much that they turn to mothering a lost human boy on an inhospitable planet – a planet that became uninhabitable because of … you guessed it… violent action.
If you are a crazy peacenik feminist like me, with a soft spot for movies that value love and non-violence and collaboration and an image of the future that is not dominated by Tom Cruise or Chris Pine or Robert Downy Junior knock-offs, go see After Earth. If you want explosions and death and booty shots, well, I am sure there are plenty of summer blockbusters in the pipeline that will deliver.