That Time M. Night Shyamalan Shot Down My 'After Earth' Twist Theory

That Time M. Night Shyamalan Shot Down My 'After Earth' Twist Theory

Jun 03, 2013

Unlike most critics, I actually liked After Earth quite a bit. Then I interviewed M. Night Shyamalan and liked it a little less. It happened because I thought I'd figured out the movie's explanation for huge things that didn't make sense. Let me explain. Yes, there may be spoilers below.

First Problem: "This is a Class 1 quarantined planet. The threats we will be facing are real. Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans."

It's a great line of dialogue for a trailer, but it's also what's bugged me the most about After Earth leading up to the movie, and while actually watching it. If After Earth takes place 1,000 years after mankind had to evacuate Earth, then why have all of the animals on Earth evolved to kill humans? There are no humans left for them to kill. There's nothing to drive that evolution. They've evolved specifically to kill a species that doesn't exist to them? That's like saying everything on Venus has evolved to kill Martians. Doesn't add up.

Plus, why would these animals evolve backwards? Why would large cats revert back to sabretooth-esque physiology? If we don't have sabretooths today, why would we have them in the future?

Second Problem: Where are all the buildings?

If humans had to evacuate Earth because overdevelopment caused an environmental cataclysm, turning it into an inhospitable planet, where are all the signs of that? Shouldn't there be buildings all over the damned place? The Great Pyramids are 4,500 years old and they're still around and they were built out of stone. Why would there be no sign of a human civilization that built things out of substantially more permanent materials? Did they crash-land on the one patch of Earth that happened to escape the overdevelopment that poisoned the planet and drove humanity away? 

The Solution: Time Travel, duh.

There's a part in the movie where Kitai takes refuge in a cave, and in there he sees some primitive, but incredibly well-preserved, cave paintings. And that's when it all clicked for me: Kitai and Cypher are indeed from 1,000 years into the future, but they've inadvertently traveled thousands and thousands of years into Earth's past. Remember when their ship is caught in an unexpected asteroid shower? The way they escape it is by opening up a wormhole and traveling through it.

This wormhole revelation is treated almost like a throwaway line, but as soon as I saw those cave paintings, I was convinced that it was the key to explaining all of this. And I kind of loved that the movie wasn't going out of its way to explain it, and was leaving that part of the story up to astute fans to pick up on. Because, really, the wormhole solves all of the film's timeline problems. It explains:

- Why all of the animals have evolved to kill humans-- because humans still exist in these primitive times.

- Why there are no signs of human civilization-- because none have been built yet.

- Why there are perfectly preserved cave paintings-- because they're actually fresh cave paintings made by current cavemen, who Kitai just hasn't seen.

And, if it being the magic bullet that kills some of the film's biggest story problems wasn't good enough, it made perfect sense to me for M. Night Shyamalan's career. If the man is known for anything, it's for his twist endings. People would have expected After Earth to have one, but it didn't. Instead, it had a twist opening. Bam!  Seriously, piecing all of this together while watching the movie made me like it exponentially more.

But then I interviewed M. Night Shyamalan and asked him about it. His response was a bit deflating: At the beginning of the movie, when they have to jump out of the asteroids using a wormhole, are they traveling back in time?

Shyamalan: No, no, they're not. They're kind of just popping into a fold. It's funny you thought of it that way. No, they're just going into Earth the way it is right now. That's funny. That's a good conspiracy theory, though.

Well, bummer. So the wormhole wasn't a time-travel device, it was just a plain ole travel device. That's disappointing. But then another weird thing happened: I started doubting my own dislike.

Should I really like the movie less because of it? I only got to ask Shyamalan that question because I'm lucky to have a job that lets me interview filmmakers. In fact, I wasn't even supposed to do the interview at first; Erik Davis was going to, but he had to miss his screening of the movie because his father was in surgery, and so I took it over. Remove the chain of events that puts me in a position to ask the director about it and I would have been pleased as punch that I'd "figured out" the movie's secret. There'd be no one to tell me otherwise, really. 

And that has me wondering: why shouldn't I just pretend like I never did get that answer? Because it's all still perfectly logical to me. I love fan theories about movies and TV shows. I love to read about different interpretations of things, and whether I'd come up with this wormhole time-travel thing or read about it somewhere else, it would have made perfect sense to me. It makes me like the movie more. Should the director telling me otherwise make me like the movie less? I honestly don't know.

It's like Blade Runner. Depending on how you see the movie, Deckard is either a human or a Replicant. Ridley Scott sees him as a Replicant, but does that mean the same people who look at the same on-screen evidence who come to the conclusion that he's still human are categorically wrong? If art is interpretive, who really gets to be the authority? I'm not sure I have an answer to that. All I know is that I genuinely liked After Earth either way. Maybe a bit more if seen through my point of view, but even if the problems remain, it's still a fine survival movie with some respectably dorky sci-fi trappings and unique world building. If I were a 13-year-old boy, I'd be in love with it. As an adult, I can respect what it's going for, even if it's a little bumpy along the way.

Also, if you happened to remember the first time I wrote about After Earth because of something in the trailer that sent me into geeky analysis mode, I also asked Shyamalan about that-- especially since it ended up not even being in the movie. This answer was also disappointing, but I can hardly blame him. There's definitely no wiggle room for interpretation here: When the trailer for After Earth first hit, I kind of geeked out a bit because I thought that a horse in it was your version of a Quagga.

Shyamalan: [Laughs] That's so great. That sequence is a mini, one-off sequence where Jaden gets caught in a stampede. It's so beautifully done. It was one of the last choices. It had always been in and out, in and out, because it was so beautiful as a moment. It's a classic filmmaker lesson of being able to kill your babies, that if the sequence requires a kind of alacrity, where you've got five-to-seven scenes in a sequence but one of them is undermining it because it's so striking, it actually stops the sequence and makes it feel like it's over.

I tried moving it to three or four different places, because it was so beautiful. I'd say of everything I had to trim off the movie, that was the big heartache. Even 'til the last second I was with the editor going, "Can we find a way to put it somewhere?!" It was in a sequence that I wrote where he stops and hears a noise and this stampede overwhelms him, but it was that stopping and listening that made it so difficult to put in the movie. And were those horses quagga?

Shyamalan: What it was was me and the designers kind of elaborating on what the evolution would be of okapis as they morphed a bit. So we just slightly tweaked each animal a little bit and that was our tweak for the okapi.

Damn, no time travel and no quaggas. It's a testament to the movie that I still enjoyed it despite being wrong about both those things. Go in with an open mind and you too might like it. Seriously, it's not nearly the disaster the Rotten Tomatoes score or box office pundits would have you believe it is.



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