It’s easy to put the boots to M. Night Shyamalan whenever he debuts a new film, but the fact of the matter is as long as Lady In The Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender exist, After Earth will never be considered his worst film.
The story, conceived by Will Smith while he was watching an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive, was originally meant to tell the tale of a father and son crashing their car in some remote region, and the son having to venture into rough terrain to get rescue for his father. Will later changed it to:
A crash landing leaves Kitai Raige and his father Cypher stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help.
It’s a simple story, which is what you should strive for when creating fiction. So, why doesn’t it work (apart from the wooden acting and bizarre futuristic southern military accents)? What storytelling lessons can you learn from After Earth?
1. When good exposition goes bad – Avoiding exposition is nigh-impossible when dealing with science fiction set in the future. In the case of After Earth, the audience needs to be brought up to speed on why humans fled the planet one thousand years ago, as well as being introduced to the new homeworld, Nova Prime. And that’s where it should end. Everything else the audience needs to know should be introduced organically. The one thing you should not use your opening expository scene for is telegraphing the solution for the climax of the story. It’s lazy and a cheat.
2. The protagonist/antagonist relationship – Even with coming of age stories, which After Earth is—–well, that and a motivational speech dressed up as a sci-fi actioner—–the strength and audience interest lies in the conflict found in the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. The reason After Earth doesn’t ring true isn’t because the protagonist, Kitai, is weak—possessing a weakness that must be overcome is exactly what any good story needs.
The first problem is the antagonist. The thing that combats Kitai in the film is nature—which is filled with its fair share of animal and insect nasties (plus one blast from Kitai’s past, conveniently placed to help him arc properly)—but it doesn’t oppose him. There isn’t one beast that stalks him with animal cunning and outflanks him at every turn, with the ultimate goal of turning him into a tasty morsel. The wilderness isn’t planting snares and death traps in his path to prevent him from reaching his destination.
Not that either of those scenarios are particularly original or great, but something else is needed than to have Kitai stumble and bumble his way through unfamiliar and dangerous terrain. I would have been more invested if he actively tried to outwit the environment and was constantly met with defeat. At least then he would have gained some insight. We learn from mistakes.
Which is the problem I had with the resolution. At the all is lost stage, Kitai suddenly masters the gimmick that allows him to prevail in the end. Without obtaining the wisdom or acquiring the experience to properly do so. And again, it’s a cheat and lazy storytelling.
3. Telegraphing – Some writers mistake this with foreshadowing—the act of dropping hints about certain plot developments that will come to be later in the story. The difference between them? Telegraphing is giving away too much, too soon, thereby ruining the suspense, or the impact of the event.
Before using foreshadowing, have a good think. Is it necessary to heighten the tension? It can be difficult knowing which side of the line you’re on, so if you’re attempting to foreshadow, you should ask yourself if there’s any chance the audience can predict what you’re hinting at? If the answer is yes, take a good look around. You’re standing in telegraph territory. Try a subtler approach.
4. Flashbacks – It’s amazing how many screenwriters still get this wrong by thinking flashback sequences serve the purpose of filling in plot holes in the past. A well-constructed flashback should always move the story forward. Always. If your flashback doesn’t accomplish this, you need to rework your story and find a way to introduce whatever bit of information is missing from your plot.
In After Earth, we have dueling flashback sequences, one set belonging to Cypher which explains his estrangement from his son and the other set telegraphing Kitai’s final obstacle. Nether of these string-of-past-event-sequences impact the present day story, nor do they escalate the conflict. The just provide information that could have be delivered during the Act 1 set-up.
Naturally, there are other problems I had with this film, but delving into them would reveal too many spoilers, so I’ll just end the post here. If you happen to see the film and want to discuss it, feel free to comment below or drop me a line.
Sally forth and be writeful.