The tagline of the new Will/Jaden Smith movie, After Earth, is: “Danger is real. Fear is a choice.” The movie, which was directed by the inexplicably still-working hack M. Night Shyamalan and based on a story devised by the elder Smith, hinges on the ability of its young protagonist Kitai (Jaden) to rid himself of fear so that he can defeat a giant, blind monster mole that hunts humans by detecting their anxiety.
“Don’t feel what you feel,” is an idiotic, unreasonable moral for a film, and it sounds a lot like Scientology babble. Given Will Smith’s long-rumored association with the cult (the school he funded and staffed with his wife, New Village Leadership Academy, uses Scientology's "Study Tech" teaching method, for example) and the sci-fi, post-apocalyptic format of the film, After Earth has been widely regarded as a Battlefield Earth-like effort at sub rosa Scientology marketing.
Earlier this week, someone on Reddit reran a GameFAQs forum post that picked through the film’s imagery and themes and seemed to come up with an impressive bunch of Scientology parallels. These range from symbology (After Earth’s erupting volcano bears striking resemblance to the cover of Dianetics) to setting (After Earth takes place on an Earth that appears strikingly similar to the one Xenu lorded over) to a focus on Scientology touchtones like emotion control and parental influence.
Additionally, the character of Kitai is haunted by a mole-monster attack from his past, which we see gradually in a series of flashbacks. Surely, I thought, that’s an engram — freeing himself of its grip is key to his character’s progress.
To put this theory to the test, I contacted Dave Touretzky, a research professor at Carnegie Mellon and longtime Scientology gadfly and expert. Touretzky's credentials as a foe of Scientology are impeccable, and he would jump at the opportunity to discredit a propaganda vehicle. “I don't see any Scientology content AT ALL in this movie,” he told me in an email:
The themes of the movie appear to be standard adventure fare: physical courage, coming of age, father/son relationships, battling danger to prove oneself and earn a father's respect. These are not Scientology themes. There is no mention of evil psychiatrists, mind control, engrams, etc.
He then proceeded to demolish the Scientology hypothesis point by point. The Reddit thread, for instance, says that the film's emphasis on survival aligns with L. Ron Hubbard's contention that "'survive' is the highest command of existence and that everything in life is subservient to this command."
- While it's true that Hubbard placed a lot of emphasis on "survival" being the key drive for all beings, that is also the theme of every shipwreck/castaway movie ever made.
But what about the similarities between the film's vision of Earth and the Xenu myth?
- There is plenty of apocaplyptic fiction in which Earth is abandoned. But that wasn't the point of the Xenu story. Earth was a prison planet that Xenu used as a dumping ground for his victims. It was an insignificant backwater back then, and it was not "destroyed" by the hydrogen bombs that Xenu used to vaporize his victims.
Nor does Touretzky think the "fear is a choice" tagline resonates particularly with Hubbard's gibberish.
- Saying that danger is real but fear is not is run-of-the-mill "brave warrior" stuff. It has nothing to do with traumatic experiences, bad memories (engrams), or any Scientology teaching.
The Reddit thread makes much of the fact that Kitai's story involves gaining his father's respect and overcoming his influence: "LRH very strongly believed that one can exist in another's internal universe, or 'valence,' and that one of the most commonly experienced valences is that of the father or mother.... '[E]xisting in another's valence'...is cited by LRH as a common source of unhappiness."
- The claim that a desire to earn a parent's respect is comparable to "existing in another valence" is nonsense. It is normal and healthy for a child to want his parents' approval and respect. Even a Scientologist would acknowledge that.... [B]eing "stuck in another valence" might be how Scientologists explain some abnormal behaviors, but it does not apply to the situation depicted in the trailer.
Hubbard wrote that space planes of the future will look like DC-8s. The Reddit thread says "the shape of Cypher's and Kitai's ship, which is remarkably similar to an airplane, is no coincidence."
-The ships shown in the trailer don't look anything like DC-8s or any other kind of airplane. They look more like the Space Shuttle, which also had stubby wings. The poster is straining to make connections that just don't hold up to scrutiny. Besides, 99% of Scientologists have never read OT III [the advanced level of Hubbard teachings in which the space opera stuff is revealed] and don't know anything about Xenu or DC-8s, so who would this movie be trying to appeal to?
But don't the costumes make the characters look like Scientology shock troops?
- The poster thinks the Ranger Corps uniforms look like Sea Org uniforms, but that's nonsense. The Ranger Corps are wearing jumpsuits; the Sea Org never do. Sea Org uniforms are modeled after US Navy or Salvation Army uniforms. Military uniforms in the movies all look pretty similar.
But the film's marketing materials prominently feature a volcano, just as the cover of Dianetics does.
- The original version of Dianetics did not have any pictures on the cover. After Hubbard dreamed up OT III around 1967, someone got the idea of putting a volcano on the cover of Dianetics to "restimulate the engrams" of us nonbelievers and influence us to buy the book. But most Scientologists don't know anything about OT III or why there is a volcano on the cover of some versions of Dianetics. And wasn't there a volcano in the King Kong movie too?
I also asked him about what I thought was Kitai’s engram, but he corrected that, too:
That's not an engram. That's a traumatic, character-forming event, and one of the most common plot devices in the history of fiction. Engrams are things you don't consciously remember — until auditing brings them to the surface. When you do remember them and can analyze the event with your analytical mind (a Dianetics term), they lose their power.
Propaganda or no, After Earth is a dreadfully dull movie, essentially one long quest to find intergalactic cell-phone reception in front of a futuristic Earth backdrop that looks painted and is populated by CGI creatures that don’t even look up to Madagascar quality – they’re as flat and cartoonish as The Lion King. Will Smith is motionless for 75 percent of the movie, delivering each belabored line seconds apart (“I’m a thespian, I’m a thespian,” he thinks between each pained sentence instead of, "One Mississippi, two Mississippi"). Jaden Smith speaks like someone who’s never heard a British accent but who’s heard of British accents and is trying it out nonetheless. (It is never explained why he has any trace of a British accent, by the way.) He mumbles narration and only telegraphs extreme terror on that little, wincing face of his until his character magically doesn’t anymore.
If After Earth were intentional propaganda, it would be an even bigger failure than it already is – the path to self-enlightenment is reduced to an overlong, tedious quest to find shit. Who wants to join that club? For the strong-willed, fear may be a choice, but for everyone else this weekend, avoiding boredom is an even clearer choice.