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'After Earth' as Scientology Propaganda: What Critics Are Saying

Prospects look grim for After Earth, Sony's $130 million sci-fi feature from director M. Night Shyamalan, starring arguably the biggest star on the planet, Will Smith, acting opposite his progeny, Jaden Smith.

FILM REVIEW: After Earth

The film has grossed a meager $1 million in opening-night screenings, and reviews have been as lethal as the beasts that wander its CGI landscape. And many of those reviews have suggested that the film traffics heavily in the theology of Scientology.

"Casual students of Scientology may find their ears pricking up at those maxims because fear and its overcoming receive a lot of play in Dianetics, a foundational text by the creator of Scientology, the pulp science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard," writes the New York Times' Manohla Dargis in her review. " 'There are five ways in which a human being reacts toward a source of danger,' he wrote in Dianetics. 'These are also the five courses he can take on any given problem.' These options are attack, flee, avoid, neglect or succumb."

Writing for Vulture, Matt Patches breaks down After Earth as nothing more than an elaborate homage to Scientology. The movie's villain is "emotion," for example, while the father character "audits" his son throughout the film. "The bulk of After Earth is essentially that [auditing] scene from The Master on a blockbuster scale," Patches argues.

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In his review for The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern begins by asking, "Is After Earth the worst movie ever made?" He then follows, "Maybe not; there's always Battlefield Earth to remind us how low the bar can go."

Morgenstern then goes on to say that the film is less a movie than it is a protracted, mind-numbing sermon.

"The sermon echoes a central theme of Scientology," he writes. "Is that the production's subtext, or are there reasons yet to be uncovered why humor and humanity have been essentially banished; why everyone looks pained; why the very notion of entertainment has been banished in favor of grinding didacticism, and why Mr. Smith, who has been such a brilliant entertainer over the years and decades, looks as if he has undergone a radical charismaectomy?"

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Rolling Stone's Peter Travers also cites Battlefield Earth in his review, writing, "After Earth merits comparison with 2000's Battlefield Earth, John Travolta's godawful film tribute to the sci-fi novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Yes, it's that bad."

Smith, rumored to be a member of the controversial religion that counts Tom Cruise and Travolta among its most famous adherents, has long denied any official affiliation with the Church.

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Still, the New Village Leadership Academy, a school he co-founded in 2008 with wife Jada Pinkett-Smith, is staffed by a number of Scientologists and employs "Study Technology," a teaching methodology developed by Hubbard. 

Rumors of After Earth's Scientologist leanings have been circulating since its first trailer hit the Internet in late 2012. One widely circulated analysis on Reddit said much of the film's iconography depicted in the trailer mirrored Hubbard's writings.

Some examples:

The concept of the "abandoned Earth."

Scientologists believe that the planet was destroyed 75 million years ago when atomic bombs detonated in active volcanoes. Writer Jeff Carter of Geek League of America goes so far as to suggest that Oblivion, too, was influenced by the religion: "Wow … two trailers starring famous Scientologists exploring a postapocalyptic Earth in two days? What are the odds?" he wrote in December. "First we had Tom Cruise playing a human Wall-E in the Oblivion trailer, and today we get a preview of Will and Jaden Smith’s sci-fi vanity project/Scientology propaganda flick -- After Earth."

The dialogue.

In the trailer, Smith's character, Cypher, tells his son, Kitai, "Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. … Danger is very real. But fear is a choice." A condensed version of that line has been used in the film's marketing. That notion corresponds with Scientology beliefs that negative thoughts are the products of traumatic collective memories. Overcoming fear and doubt -- i.e. becoming "clear" -- is the central tenet of Scientology.

The volcano itself.

A volcano, a central image in the religion, has graced the cover of Dianetics for years. In After Earth's trailer, one stands prominently in the background of one shot.

The shape of the spacecraft.

The ships in After Earth have rudders, suggesting a cross between an underwater predator and a jet airliner. Scientology believes that spaceships shaped like DC-8s were used to transport billions of aliens to Earth, then known as "Teegeeack," under the rule of Xenu, a galactic dictator.

The costumes.

The white uniform worn by Cypher, a member of the movie's Ranger Corps, an elite paramilitary organization, is reminiscent of the uniforms worn by members of Sea Org, or Scientology's seafaring equivalent.