One thousand years in the future, man lives on Nova Prime. General Cypher Raige is one mission away from retirement, and his relationship with his young son Kitai is non-existent. With days to go before leaving the Ranger Corps behind, Cypher takes Kitai along on his final assignment across the stars — one that ends with a horrific crash-landing on a deadly planet called Earth.
With Cypher gravely injured, it's up to the untested Kitai to trek out into the jungle to find a beacon that can signal Nova Prime for help. Cypher can do nothing but communicate and observe remotely as his reckless teenage son battles a harsh environment that's constantly evolving with one goal in mind: Kill any humans left behind.
That's what you're up against with After Earth, the new sci-fi adventure in theaters this weekend. Will and Jaden Smith take on the roles of Cypher and Kitai Raige, with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan behind the lens. Shyamalan spoke with Spinoff Online about exploring the sci-fi genre through After Earth, working with the Smiths, and whether or not we'll see a sequel to one of his beloved classics anytime soon.
Spinoff Online: Does a giant, sci-fi space epic like After Earth tick something off the bucket list for you?
M. Night Shyamalan: [Laughs] You know, I definitely had the Alien poster above my desk for about a decade. But it's never like that. For example, when I think of Alien, I think of horror. I think of incredible production design, breathtaking, crazy-brilliant production design. And an incredible format for writing, where you don't know who your main character is. I mean, that's just genius. That's what I think. So I don't think in terms of genre necessarily.
One night when Will talked to me about the idea [for After Earth], I could just get the torture of being separated from your loved one in a moment like that. When they leave each other, there's a sense that this might be the end. This feeling that, "If I knew this was all about to end, I would've been much nicer to you." If we were in some post-apocalypse and my daughter had to go on this mission, and I could only talk to her [remotely], I mean, I don't know if I could take it. I don't know that I could handle that.
If you're not thinking in terms of genre, how about in terms of working with certain actors, like Will Smith on this movie?
I definitely love working with specific artists, for sure. I always have agendas to work with certain people. They hardly ever come true. But then I'll have the oddest thing happen. I'll see Mark Wahlberg randomly, I'll think of him for something, and then we'll make a movie. That's happened a bunch of times. Working with Will was for sure a great opportunity. We're both from Philly. We both had kind of circled each other a couple of times to make movies. And even though we've had different takes sometimes, our subject matters have been kind of similar. Unbreakable and Hancock, Signs and I Am Legend. They're similar-ish. We have these tendencies. We thought it would be fun to do one together.
Ironically, [After Earth] came about not from the conversations he and I had together, but through a third thing, which was Jaden. I said, "Hey, I like Jaden." He said, "I have an idea for Jaden." I said, "I'll direct Jaden in it!" And he said, "Well, there's a father role in it. I'll play the father if you're going to direct Jaden." And that's it! It was all because of Jaden.
So Will wasn't always locked?
I don't know. You would have to ask him. My impression is that it was always for Jaden. I don't know what they would have done if I wasn't directing, if it was someone else directing. It might have just been a Jaden vehicle [without Will]. That was my impression. But I was all about it. "Yes! Play the dad!" I mean, really.
"No, Will Smith! You can't be in my movie!"
It's interesting seeing the two of them in this context. Clearly, Jaden has grown up quite a bit since he was with Will in The Pursuit of Happyness. And this almost feels like a passing of the torch. Will is immobilized for much of the movie, and Jaden is the action star.
Yeah, yeah, and that was the intention. In real life and in the movie, there was a similar thing happening: Here's my son, and now he's going to lead in the storytelling. Perhaps there was maybe a transition from physical to dramatic roles [for Will]. That was my intention, at least, in a poignant way. With Jaden, we caught him in an unusual moment. He was in that 13- to 14-year-old moment. It's an awkward time in your life. To catch that on film, where he's a child but he's not a child, he's trying to be a young man, but he's not really tough … it's sweet. There are two different movies. If he was just a child, his father wouldn't send him out [into Earth] if he was just a child. If he was a tough buck, then Cypher would be like, "Alright dude. I'm just going to rest here. You take over." [Laughs]
The 17-year-old version of Kitai, I would've written a very different movie for that guy. There would've been a vibe of, "I got this, Dad. You just hang tight." Dad is still there, but there would have been more of a "Stick with me, Dad, I'm still here" tone in the writing. What we ended up with is a boy saying, "I can't do this, Dad. Come get me." There's a scene where he can't see, and he's asking, "Come get me, Dad." He still has one foot in childhood, so when things get bad, he can regress a bit.
At the start of the film, Kitai certainly acts like he's that 17-year-old.
Yeah, there's a bullshit bravado to him. And that tone was the key when we were talking about it with Jaden. We're saying to the character, "You got this. You got this. Show your dad. This is your moment. You were rejected from the academy this year, but screw that. Show him." And then the first time things get real, he's all, "Come and get me, dad!"
I'm getting the wrap signal here, so I have to ask: I can't help but notice you are wearing an Iron Man T-shirt right now …
[Laughs] I haven't had a chance to see these movies that have come out in the past four or five weeks because I've been traveling, but next week, the first movie I'm watching is Iron Man.
You played with comics and superheroes in Unbreakable. Is there still a chance for a sequel?
There is a chance. Something's percolating in my head here, as a story that would be valid right now, rather than just an agenda of wanting to put a sequel out. I hate that. I can't think like that. I need to find a cool story with these characters in a new aspect in which it can be told. I'm moving toward that. In my mind, at the time [of Unbreakable], I had that, what I was going to do as a second one. But I've moved away from that for some reason. I've moved away from that feeling. But I'm coming back to feeling that there's a valid story here. I've been taking notes.
Are you too close to After Earth to consider a sequel to that one?
Yeah, I'm a hair close to it. I just finished it a few weeks ago! [Laughs] I literally put the last color timing on it three weeks and a half ago, and they said, "You have to stop." [Laughs] So, yeah, I'm a little close. But it was very fun to be in that world. It was fun to think it through, and to think of it as a documentary of the future, that kind of thing.
After Earth is in theaters now.