After Earth: Will Smith and Son Jaden Smith

“After Earth” begins more than one thousand years in the future – in fact, one thousand years after humanity was forced to abandon the only home they had ever known.

“Earth just gave up on humans,” says Jaden Smith, who stars as Kitai Raige, a young man forced to navigate the harsh terrain left behind when his spacecraft crashes on the forbidden planet. “Tsunamis, toxic air, toxic water, toxic food, extreme weather – it was like Earth said, ‘You have to get off of me,’ and that’s what humans did.”

Their new home would be the planet Nova Prime, and Nova Prime would know no greater family than the Raiges. Kitai’s father, Cypher Raige (played by Jaden Smith’s father, Will Smith) became a legendary general in the United Ranger Corps, creating a legacy that Kitai is determined to emulate… but all is not going as planned. “Kitai feels a lot of pressure to step into his father’s shoes,” says Jaden Smith. “Also, Kitai blames himself for his sister’s death – she died years ago in an attack that Kitai thinks he should have done something to stop – and he thinks his dad blames him, too. So the relationship between Kitai and his father is broken, and Kitai is trying to fix it; he’s trying too hard to get his father’s respect and approval.”

Cypher returns home from another long stint of service to learn that Kitai’s intense desire to succeed has led to recklessness, causing him to fail his first attempt to become a Ranger. In an attempt to bridge the rift between father and son, says Will Smith, “Kitai’s mother suggests that Cypher take him on a trip – spend some time together, bonding. But our ship crash-lands in the most inhospitable place in the universe for human beings – which is Earth.”

In the film, everything on Earth has evolved to kill human beings. With his father trapped in the wrecked ship, Kitai will have to brave these elements – and numerous highly evolved species – if he and his father are to have any chance of returning home.

“What I thought was really interesting about this film was that it’s huge in scope, but it comes down to a simple idea that every person in the audience can relate to: it’s a father and son story,” says Will Smith. “I think that’s what audiences will really connect with – seeing the father try to connect with the son, to teach him, with life-or-death consequences.”

The lesson the father must teach his son is to conquer his fear. “Every parent knows when his or her child is lying to them because they’re scared of something,” says Will Smith. “And every parent has a different way of dealing with that. In After Earth, we have a father trying to command and control his son from a distance, but at the end of the day, once your child goes out of the house, you’ve taught them all you can – they have to learn the rest on their own. For me, in this movie, the extreme landscape makes these parent-and-child relationships huge, life-threatening.”

“That’s what we really responded to about this story,” says Caleeb Pinkett, also a producer of the film. “It’s exciting – set a thousand years in the future – but the real thing we responded to was that emotional core, the universal idea.”

Jaden Smith, now just 14 years old, has already made his mark as a leading man. He first starred on screen opposite his father in The Pursuit of Happyness, receiving acclaim for his performance. He would follow that with a supporting role in The Day the Earth Stood Still and a leading role opposite Jackie Chan in the worldwide hit The Karate Kid. With the release of that film, it was clear that the younger Smith had the talent, the skill, and the charisma to take on such a leading role.

Jaden Smith says that his character is one that any young teen – or anybody who’s been a young teen – can relate to. “Kitai is supposed to be the best of the best – and he is, physically, in what he can do – but he’s reckless,” he says. “He feels he has something to prove, because of who his father is and because of things that have happened in the past. It’s hard for him to control his emotions. So when they crash on Earth, if he is going to survive, he has to put that aside, stop caring about whether or not he impresses his dad. He has to grow up and become a warrior.”

“At the beginning of the movie, Kitai is a little brash, but it’s only from being so scared,” says Caleeb Pinkett. “He’s afraid, so he acts like he’s not. The crash strips away all of that bravado, and you see a scared little boy. The only way he’ll get back home is if he can gain the confidence to face his fears – not in a hubristic way, but a humble way of understanding that yes, he is good enough.”

The father also has to learn to trust the son. “That’s hard for Cypher, but it’s something we all have to do as parents – our children succeed or fail on their own, and all we can do as parents is watch,” says Will Smith. “It’s very much a coming-of-age story for both parent and child.”

The origins of the project began with an ordinary evening at home. After making The Karate Kid, as Jaden and his parents were considering the teen’s next project, it was important to both Smiths to work together again. “Jaden and I were sitting around one night, watching TV and talking about how we’d liked working together on Pursuit of Happyness, and that we might want to do that again,” says Will Smith. “As we’re talking about looking for that story, with the news on in the background, Jaden says, ‘Maybe I’m your son, I’m in trouble, and you have to come home from war.’ That turned into an idea of a father and son who go off on a bonding trip to Alaska, and they have to get through the wilderness. It was just fun, an interesting conversation until we juxtaposed the idea of setting the story a thousand years in the future – and then the whole concept of After Earth started to explode in our minds.”

Will Smith would write the story for the film, but that was just the beginning – the filmmakers envisioned a very rich universe encompassing various arenas outside of the film itself. In fact, they would create 1,000 years of back story – resulting in a 300-page bible covering the history of mankind from the decision to leave Earth up to the events in the film, prepared by Eisner Award-winning comic writer Peter David, Michael Jan Friedman, and Robert Greenberger. The bible would serve as a resource for all kinds of ancillary materials in the After Earth franchise. “The thing that struck me about it was not just how detailed it was, but how oddly prescient,” says Pinkett. “Peter drew up the history of an entire universe, which was impressive enough, but then in our world, things started happening that mirrored his universe. Like that Russian meteor a few months ago – Peter had described a remarkably similar event. I think that shows a verisimilitude to Peter’s approach that grounds the universe of After Earth – even though we enter a realm of sci-fi.”

“This world is so thoroughly thought out,” says Will Smith. “The history for these characters was laid out beyond anything I’ve ever seen before. Just as an example, for me, playing Cypher – a general with the Rangers – it was fantastic to know that my character’s grandmother was head of the Rangers, and it was during her tenure that she united the government under the Rangers. What that meant was that her son, my character’s father, never got a chance to head the Rangers until he was almost 50 years old – he missed his prime. That’s the kind of history Peter explored – while details like that aren’t a part of this movie, they help us with our characters and to understand this world as a distinct place, and give us a rich environment.”