Scientology Propaganda is the Least of After Earth’s Worries

Friday saw the release of After Earth, the new M. Night Shyamalan film starring Will and Jaden Smith in a sci-fi action thriller that has surprisingly opened to weak box office sales and lukewarm critical reception.

But probably one of the more controversial developments about After Earth is the notion that the film may be nothing more than propaganda for the religion of Scientology.

No, I’m not kidding. IGN reported the conspiracy yesterday, citing the film’s focus on controlling emotion and its connection to some of the tenets of Scientologist belief.

Now, I’m not one to condemn the beliefs of others in any way. If it is nothing more than a virtual pamplet for L. Ron Hubbard’s religion, then good on it. If nothing else, it was a completely watchable and entertaining film that I didn’t mind paying a nominal amount of money for.

But if we’re going to take a negative look at the film and talk about some of its bigger issues, then there’s a real conversation to be had.

(WARNING: Spoilers Ahead)

One of the biggest problems I had with the film was its lack of ingenuity. Now, this isn’t normally something I’d level at a film, since anyone who’s passively studied literature knows that there is no such thing as a new story, just new ways of telling them. On a very broad scale, the basic plot developments of every story have already been told, and now we’re just trying to find new ways to approach it.

The reason I level this criticism at After Earth is simply because of the man behind the whole operation and his pedigree of mindbending movies. Shyamalan is the man behind such works as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and The Village. With such an impressive track record of great storytelling, how is it that he’s been leaning on tired old tropes and weak narratives in his latest films?

Now, the story of After Earth is by no means bad; it’s just surprisingly uninspired for a Shyamalan film, coupling cliched Sci-Fi tropes with a coming of age story focusing on the relationship between a hardened military father and his intrepid son desperate for approval. Add to that a deserted Earth that humanity destroyed, human-hunting aliens, and futuristic technology, and it’s merely a film whose ideas you’ve seen a thousand times before, often in movies that are far better than Shyamalan’s latest.

And for the strengths the story did have, it still failed to sell you on what should have been the film’s biggest development: the forgiveness and eventual understanding shared by both father and son. There’s a moment about halfway into After Earth where Kitai (Jaden Smith) outright disobeys an order from his father Cypher (Will Smith) and accuses him of being a coward. After the two are separated from communication, Kitai manages to activate a distress beacon that eventually leads to the rescue of the two men. And while they share a moment at the end that sees the two finally understanding each other, it still failed to deliver on a point when both father an son realized the respective errors of their ways. Maybe I’m being a bit nitpicky here, but when Kitai manages to activate the beacon and kill the Ursa, it would have been nice to see Cypher’s character come to his own realization about his wrongdoings instead of drooling on a console and vacantly watching the video feed like me watching reruns of old TV sitcoms at three am on a weekend. The whole development felt very disjointed and failed to capitalize on what should have been the most poignant part of the entire film.

On top of that, the narrative wasn’t as airtight as it could have been, leaving me with plenty of unanswered questions that were both fickle and annoying. Why is it that, in a future when they can fly spaceships and save someone’s life using individual medpacks, they’re still using blades to hunt down aliens instead of guns? Why couldn’t Kitai communicate with his dad once he was out of the black zone on the mountain? Surely if the beacon worked, his communicator would too, right? Furthermore, what was the film’s obsession with Moby Dick? The idea never seemed to connect itself to the plot in a meaningful way, other than the fact that it was an old book Kitai’s older sister had managed to ascertain. If they had wanted her to have a greater impact and be a more important character to the story as a whole, using Moby Dick wasn’t the best way to go about doing so, as it had little to do with the actual story of After Earth.

And if the entire planet has been overrun with animals who have evolved to kill humans like Cypher told Kitai in the beginning, why didn’t anything come after Kitai the second he stepped outside and encountered everything from tarantulas and birds to seeing a giant herd of buffalo roaming the countryside?

Now, don’t get me wrong. Like I said, After Earth was by no means bad. The story pacing kept up fairly well, dialogue was weak but mildly well-delivered, and Smith’s whole diatribe about fear and our creation of it was fairly inspiring. It’s just that the film was nothing but completely ordinary, filled with middling developments and plot holes uncharacteristic of a classic Shyamalan film. Maybe it is nothing more than a subliminal call to Scientology. But if that’s the case, that message was lost in a wave of far bigger issues with the film’s development.