In an anonymous corner office on the 7th floor of the Sony Building, M. Night Shyamalan lounges on a large butterscotch leather sofa. Is this really the director of The Sixth Sense, Signs, and The Happening? Shyamalan is a name-brand filmmaker known for his idiosyncratic, high-concept plots. The man sitting in front of me, dressed in a faded Iron Man T-shirt and jeans, looks cheery, relaxed, and decidedly modest.
Then he starts discussing how housecats would survive the coming apocalypse and it becomes clear that, yes, this is the same guy.
Shyamalan’s latest movie, After Earth, is set far in the future, 1,000 years after humans were forced to abandon their increasingly inhospitable home world and relocate to a new planet called Nova Prime. When a renowned military leader and his struggling son (played by Will Smith and real-life progeny Jaden Smith) crash land on the feral Earth, they have to work together to survive and engineer a rescue. They also must defeat a cunning and extremely lethal creature called an Ursa.
The movie’s theme of overcoming fear presumably reflects the interests of the elder Smith, who wrote the original story, but Shyamalan’s signature touches are evident all around. There are homages to old B-movie science fiction, right down to barked alerts about an “asteroid storm,” and hints of classic adventures like Treasure Island, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and (explicitly) Moby Dick. Building on themes from Shyamalan’s earlier movies, After Earth also resonates with big, cautionary messages about environmental degradation and over-reliance on technology.
In our conversation, Shyamalan eagerly expands on those ideas, and throws in provocative predictions about where the real world is headed. There is no hidden twist: The rich Hollywood director is also an earnest true believer. Warning: There are some mild spoilers ahead, especially if you haven’t watched the trailer. Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell
After Earth offers a very detailed vision of Earth more than 1,000 years in the future. Did you work with science advisors to help craft that vision?
During the year that I spent on the production design, the production designer, Tom Sanders, and I had a lot of conversations. We did research into what people had postulated might happen—theories that were provocative or that I found rattling. Some of them we could execute, some we just alluded to because of the price involved [for special effects]. One theory I loved was that birds would blight the sky: If man wasn’t here, you would see massive shadows that would be like clouds but it would be birds, millions and millions and millions of birds moving in concert. Or the idea that domesticated pets would kind of go crazy. In my early early draft of the screenplay, Will is in the cockpit [of his spaceship] and hears a rumble. Then a herd of cats, wild cats, goes over the cockpit windows and moves through a ravine. And he’s wondering, what is this? We got those kinds of ideas at the research end.
There have been many other recent films that imagine a future Earth—everything from Wall-E to Star Trek. What is different about your future?
I think all of our visions of the future have been Blade Runner influenced: technology on steroids, wow. And now the Blade Runner future is almost here. Times Square looks like Blade Runner. But this movie’s premise is this [technology-driven approach] didn’t work out. We barely got off the Earth; just 600,000 people got off, and they rebooted. They all sat down and said, we get to start over again, and they did it differently this time. Tom Sanders came up with the idea that we would revert to more of a “weaver” kind of culture: Things would be made out of fabric more, and everything would be grown. Tom actually used his hands to make the models of the buildings and what the society would look like and how they would travel on zip lines over this terrain. It’s all very organic. You won’t see any right angles in the movie, there are no sharp edges, and there’s no steel.
And no advanced weapons: No phasers, not even guns, even though they sure seem like they’d come in handy. What was your thinking there?
My thinking was that they had weaponry meant specifically for the kind of interaction they’re having with this alien culture on Nova Prime. There are no interpersonal or interhuman conflicts, no warfare yet. If we had played out the war [with the aliens] more you would have seen a kind of sound weaponry. There’s an insinuation in the movie that there are guns but it’s not the predominant thing. Being able to kill one of these Ursas was more of a hand-to-hand combat thing. In a way, I saw the whole culture as advanced primitive. When we say primitive we think of it pejoratively, but I don’t think of it that way at all. More like simplistic and organic, unlike the Blade Runner future: much colder, more technology oriented.
You don’t include any robots, either, even though the culture is capable of faster-than-light travel. Why not? Robots would seem perfect against the threat you created.
I just didn’t see this future as a technology-oriented future. I saw it much more as American Indian, more in concert with nature. Both of our worlds—our post-apocalyptic world on Nova Prime and also when they come back to Earth—are much more beautiful than we thought they would be. We always think of post-apocalyptic as a pejorative term. But why does “after an apocalypse” have to be a bad thing? You know, there was an apocalypse, I got that, that’s bad, but afterit doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
DISCOVER explored this idea in Alan Weisman’s 2005 article Earth Without People, which eventually inspired the Discovery Channel series Life After People.
Which I looked at a lot! It was a fascinating series.
After Earth comes across in part as a message movie about the dangers of failing to take care of the environment. Is that how you intended it?
What I love about this movie is, there’s this lean to the storytelling: We screwed up on Earth and the Earth evicted us. That’s a given. Alright, now let’s talk about what happens after that. [The environmental crisis] wasn’t happening in the story, it was happening way before. Also I’m really intrigued by the idea of the whole Gaia thing. Obviously my middle name is Night, from Lakota Indian. [He was born Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan and adopted the name Night while he was a film student at NYU.] I love the feeling that we are viewing Earth with a soul—like it’s a living thing, it knows when it’s sick, and when it knows something’s bad for it, it readjusts to make it healthy again. What if it readjusted and said, this whole human thing isn’t flying right now?
That sounds awfully pessimistic. What do you see as our prospects? Do you think people will still be here in 1,000 years?
I do, because things are happening so rapidly right now. Let’s say we didn’t touch anything, that we kept on going with the plastics and so on. In a hundred years we’d probably be facing something cataclysmic. I believe it’s only about a hundred years away. But we are going to take a right turn. Changes that used to take 50 years or 25 years, which was a generation, then started taking 15 years and 10 years. Now I believe that a generation is more like 5 years. The whole world of people can completely change the way they behave in 5 years. It’ll be interesting to see, from Tesla on, what happens. [He means Tesla the car, not the man.] So I am an optimist.
Your story is predicated on the settling of other worlds. Do you think that is our destiny, to move beyond Earth?
I do. That makes me a little sad. I’d rather us stay here. I felt like I was telling a story about us being kicked out of Eden, and two guys getting a peek back at it. We thought about that while making the movie, because it was hard to find places on the planet that looked like they hadn’t been touched by humanity. That’s sad, that they were hard to find. When we went to Costa Rica we were all in awe of some of the things we saw—trees that were half the size of this room at the base. You just can’t believe these things exist. Then we were in the redwood forest, and there’s so little of the redwood forest left. The guide told us, we’re very close to the tallest tree in the world but I can’t tell you which one it is, to keep it safe.
What is waiting for us out there on other planets? Do you believe there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?
Definitely. That is a mathematical certainty. We can’t be the smartest things; that would be silly. I mean really—Snookie, that’s it?