Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Survival of the Clearest

Jaden Smith takes a knee in After Earth.

«1/2 After Earth.  Written by Gary Whitta & M. Night Shyamalan. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. At area theaters.
Most kids get an X-box or a bike for their birthdays. When you’re Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith, you get to co-star in a summer blockbuster. Jaden’s 15th birthday is coming up on July 8th, and the movie is M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi survival epic, After Earth. That proud Papa Will is eager to launch his son’s career as an action hero is perhaps not surprising. What is surprising is that Jaden must share his gift with L. Ron Hubbard, prophet of the controversial religion repeatedly tied to his father.
          On the surface, After Earth is another post-apocalyptic adventure that portrays humanity’s relationship with Planet Earth in the past tense. After an interstellar war with aliens, humanity is forced to abandon the planet—though the script to Gary Whitta and Shyamalan are none too clear on any of this. The aliens, it seems, have attacked us using bio-engineered monsters that target “pheromones” human secrete when they are afraid. The key to defeating them, then, is to become invisible to the creatures by banishing all trace of fear (a state called “ghosting”), and sticking them with a pointy object. This is apparently a superior strategy to the one I’d pick: shooting them with a big gun.
          Smith père plays “General Cypher Raige”, the acknowledged master of “ghosting”. Though he’s a legendary warrior, Raige is an absentee father to his troubled son, Kitai (Jaden). To repair their relationship, dad invites son on a business trip. All goes seriously wrong, however, when they crash-land on planet Earth—a place now quarantined because “everything [there] has evolved to kill humans”. How all the plants and animals have “evolved to kill humans” when humans no longer live there is just one of the script’s many imponderables.
          Dad is injured in the crash, so Kitai, who is emotionally volatile and untested in the field, must journey sixty miles on foot to retrieve a space beacon. Again, you wonder how a civilization that has mastered interstellar travel can’t manage to build an emergency beacon that goes off automatically in case of a crash—but never mind. Instead, we watch Jaden bushwhack his way through what looks like Sequoia National Park, as his dad dispenses advice in his ear-piece like “Danger is real, fear is a choice” and “Fear is a lie we tell ourselves”. By the fourth time Raige orders his son to “take a knee”, like a high school coach who won’t shut up, we wonder why the kid hasn’t turned off the radio already.
          The action-adventure is lackluster, and the design of the movie, which is supposed to suggest a vaguely Jobsian bio-tech, ends up making our future look like the part of a Thai restaurant just before the bathrooms.
          But that’s not the real story of After Earth. Will Smith, who is given story credit here, has filled it with elements that are, if not overtly Hubbardian, very close to it. The quest to overcome negative emotions like fear—which Hubbard taught were implanted in human souls by a malicious alien race—is one of the challenges of becoming a high-functioning, or “clear”, Scientologist. The climax of the movie takes place on an exploding volcano, which is the public symbol of Hubbard’s self-help method, Dianetics. For those who like to do the research, more interesting parallels between Scientology and the movie can be found on Reddit
          Scientology-flavored movies like Battlefield: Earth and Oblivion have not been hits, which is surprising given that L. Ron Hubbard started his career pounding out pulp sci-fi for pennies a word. Ironically, Hubbard was infinitely more successful as a prophet than he was as a hack writer—a fact that exasperates many members of his Church. Will Smith denies he is a member of the Church of Scientology, though he has publicly defended it, has given lavishly to it, and runs a private school, the “New Leadership Academy”, that reportedly incorporates Church principles in its curriculum. One of the students there is Suri, daughter of Tom Cruise.
          Hubbard may have failed as a writer, but he was a canny shaper of minds who understood the value of a “Trojan Horse” approach to building up his flock. Pack ‘em in with sci-fi adventure, or pack ‘em in with self-help, but just pack ‘em in. Alas, the disappointing box office numbers for After Earth would not please the Admiral.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro