Despite the sci-fi setup, the After Earth trailer seems somewhat straightforward. A man and son crash-land their spaceship on an alien planet filled with exotic life that wants to tear them to pieces. Then Will Smith tells us the planet is actually Earth and this must be our distant future. Cue the ominous arrival of the After Earth title card.
But is it really that simple? This is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, after all. The man is known for nothing if not plot twists, and the twist to After Earth may already be hidden in the trailer.
The key is the wildlife we see on the planet. Not the baboons or the sabertooth-esque tiger, but those galloping brown horses with the oddly spaced white stripes. They're called quagga and their inclusion is mighty curious for two reasons, each with very different implications. First, they've been extinct for over 100 years. Second, for several decades the Quagga Project has tried to crossbreed the species back from extinction.
It was that second detail that first leapt to mind. I assumed the quagga was a very subtle, but very smart, attention to detail from a production-design standpoint, not unlike how Children of Men included details about future London (like the 2012 Olympics having taken place) despite being made in 2006. In the future of After Earth, the Quagga Project has not only successfully brought this subspecies of zebra back from extinction, but it was so successful that they've grown to enough numbers that they can actually move in herds. Yay science!
But then I started looking closer at the quagga in the trailer and noticed that they're not like the specimens we have on record (there are only a dozen or so known taxidermy samples). The movie's version's white stripes are spaced even farther apart, their head is mostly white, and they have little horns too. Those are pre-extinction quagga. Or, rather, they're pre-historic quagga. And that would mean After Earth actually takes place in the past. [Notice how the Earth is covered in clouds so as to not reveal the shape of the continents?]
Think about it from an evolutionary standpoint. The quagga in the film haven't quite fully evolved. Those stripes haven't grown in number to increase camouflage when in a herd. Those horns aren't just little, they're vestigial. Give it another couple thousand generations of breeding and what's in that trailer would look like what we know quagga looked like. Yay evolution!
Of course, I could be reading far too much into this. Those animals might just be in the movie because some creature designer thought it'd be neat to make a sort-of zebra that was brown instead of black. They might not even know what a quagga is. But, I'm betting it's not just a coincidence. Not only does Shyamalan love his plot twists, but the first draft of the movie was written by Gary Whitta, whose first produced screenplay (The Book of Eli) also contained its own little twist.
As for why it would take place in the past, I have no idea. Maybe the two Smith's are aliens. Maybe, as one friend joked/theorized, Jaden Smith will turn out to be Adam, and Will Smith will make him his Eve using that bone-scanning machine (Whitta does like his biblical plot twists). Maybe they're time travelers. I don't know, and I want to keep it that way. Whatever the case, I'm curious to see what path the movie actually takes, if only to see if those are really quagga in the movie. Past or future, it's a nice evolutionary touch.
Follow along on Twitter: @PeterSHall and @Moviesdotcom.