Cypher Raige is a tough act to follow. The General of Nova Prime's Ranger Corps is a war hero, one of few men who can "ghost," or shut out fear during combat against alien creatures called Ursas. That's a difficult legacy to live up to for his son, Kitai Raige, a Ranger in training.
It's not an unfamiliar dynamic for the actors playing the elder and junior Raige in "After Earth," the new M. Night Shyamalan science-fiction film hitting theaters this weekend. Will Smith stars as Cypher, and his son, Jaden Smith, plays his son, Kitai. The Smiths aren't used to battling for their lives on a far-future Earth where the entire planet has evolved to destroy them, no, but there's enough in common to make "After Earth" an intensely personal experience for one of Hollywood's most famous father-son pairs.
Size Doesn't Matter
"After Earth" takes place 1,000 years after mankind abandoned an increasingly uninhabitable Earth in favor of a new planet called Nova Prime. The legendary Cypher and his young and eager son Kitai set out to repair their strained relationship by taking a voyage to another planet. On the way, their ship crash-lands on Earth, the most dangerous place in the known universe. With Cypher injured, it's up to Kitai to set off and find a way to contact their home world and leave Earth alive.
It's a massive setting with huge stakes, but it's just window dressing, according to the Smiths. In fact, "After Earth" was originally conceived by the father-son duo as a survival tale set in the modern-day Alaskan wilderness. The story ultimately shifted to take place in the far-future, but according to Jaden, it could have been set in any time or any place.
"We realized that you can take any story and put it in 1,000 B.C., or a million years in the future," the 14-year-old actor told MTV News at the "After Earth" press junket in New Mexico. "You can do that with any story, and if it still works, then that's how you know what a good story is."
The Sugar-Free Story
At its core, stripped away of its sci-fi conceit, "After Earth" is a story about a father struggling to let his son grow into his own. It's about a son struggling to separate from his father. And these ideas are very close to home for the Smiths, what with rumors of Jaden seeking emancipation from his parents — rumors that the Smiths have since denied. Will and Jaden's real-life relationship, all of the warmth and all of the bitterness that comes with it, is on full display in the film.
"What I love about ['After Earth'] is that we can take all of that candy, all of that summer blockbuster epic stuff, and really put a stage play at the center of it," said the elder Smith. "These characters, they have a lot of similar issues going on that Jaden and I deal with. It's a great opportunity to talk about father-son issues in terms of character, but really deal with Will and Jaden."
Closer Than Ever
After working together so closely on "After Earth," one has to wonder how Will and Jaden walked away from the shared experience. Are they more connected now than ever? Can they not stand being around each other for another minute? The playful banter between the two during our interview suggested a happy ending for the two, but with an important caveat.
"If the movie is successful, it'll definitely bring us closer," said Will. "If not, I'm not going to want to see this kid [for a long time]."
Check out everything we've got on "After Earth."