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'After Earth' Ponders World Without Humanity

8:12 AM, Jun 1, 2013   |    comments
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LOS ANGELES -- A world empty of other people might sound pleasant in our over-connected, over-sharing, Internet age. No more marketing calls on the cellphone, traffic jams or radio call-in show blather.

But in After Earth, which stars Will Smith, the adventure-flick vision of the future without other people looks less ideal. Hidden deep in the "muscular" science-fiction film, says director M. Night Shyamalan, are the lessons of environmental scientists on the impact of people on our planet.

Much of the "fun," he says, in planning the film, which opened Friday was trying to contemplate a suitably adventurous world where Smith and his son Jaden play space rangers who crash-land, and find the heavy hand of humanity abruptly removed for a thousand years from Earth. Increasing numbers of studies looking from the skies to the ocean depths have documented our impact: The stocks of large predatory fish, such as tuna, swordfish and cod are less 10% of their levels before industrial fishing. On land, big cats such as lions numbered in the hundreds of thousands a century ago and today there are less than 35,000 in Africa. On the wing, at least 10% of bird species are likely to disappear by the end of the century at present rates of population decline. So what would it mean to have a world without us?

"The science that is in there, nobody will get in the back row," Shyamalan, says with a laugh. What struck him about the movie, its adventure plot written with its star, Smith, and Shymalan, were environmental studies and books digested in a year of planning the production. "I was struck by one biologist's observation that birds would blight the sky without us," he says.

"There is a line in Moby Dick that always stuck with me about man and nature," Shyamalan says. (In Moby Dick, author Herman Melville wrote, "one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.") Even though he is best known for suspense films rather than cliff-jumping action films, he says he saw the "sense of biblical judgment in the fury of nature," underlying the film. It's a theme he sees in many discussions about the future going on now in society and that is reflected in a sort of hippie/monk future for humanity seen in the film.

"We didn't want the Blade Runner future where technology has overrun nature, which to some extent is where we are headed now," Shyamalan says. "Not in a Kumbaya way, we wanted a future where people try to use only what they have to survive."

Underlining the film's themes, Jaden Smith stars in a NASA public service announcement released in conjunction with the movie, touting NASA's fleet of environment monitoring satellites. "So that we never have to leave," Smith says in the video, unlike the Earth-fleeing plot of After Earth.

A lot of writers have tackled these themes of the film, perhaps most notably The World Without Us by Alan Weisman,which looked at how our homes, cities and farms would disintegrate within years and decades without our everyday efforts, and James Kunstler's The Long Emergency, which pointed to troubles for the suburbs in coming decades. In the movie, humanity gets by with "no metal and no right angles," Shyamalan says.

As always, he says, the preparation for a movie is best if it remains hidden. Which may be just as well because some of the other science in the movie, say geology and evolution, are given the Hollywood treatment for dramatic effect.

For example, a piece of Africa somehow has mashed into North America's West Coast in a thousand years, explaining a cliff jump that goes from redwood forests to tropical jungle in one fell swoop. And whole new species appear to have evolved in that same time period.

"One idea we played with is that domesticated animals would become dominant and feral because you start out with so many of them," says the director. Feral pigs have done so in just a few decades nationwide, for example, with more than 5 million roaming from Texas to Wisconsin.

After Earth is a science-fiction adventure after all, a father and son story that Smith originally pitched to Shyamalan during a happy birthday call. "It did teach me a lot about adrenaline, where a lot of my films have been focused instead on suspense," Shyamalan says, suggesting he is more likely to go back to less muscular movies next time.

"As soon as you say that, be careful, I'll probably end up directing Vin Diesel in Fast & Furious 7," he jokes. "You never know about the future."

USA TODAY

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