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UPDATE (6/12/13): The Church of Scientology's media center emailed us with this reaction to the piece:
The myth launched by a handful of self-promoters that After Earth is about the Scientology religion and its tenets is silly nonsense. After Earth has as much to do with Scientology as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Moby Dick, King Arthur, Homer’s The Odyssey or countless other stories about protagonists overcoming fears and opponents. The Church’s website, www.scientology.org, contains accurate information on the Church and the many social programs it supports.
When the first trailer for the new Will Smith sci-fi epic "After Earth" came out, pundits immediately noticed the surface similarities to the Tom Cruise sci-fi epic "Oblivion," as both films deal with solitary heroes trying to survive on a future version of our own ravaged homeworld. Now, though, a somewhat less obvious parallel is being drawn by some critics who are suggesting that "After Earth" is actually heavily based on Scientology, the religion that Cruise helped make famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view).
So is "After Earth" a Scientology movie? And if it is, is that a bad thing?
In order to understand whether or not "After Earth" is spreading Scientology dogma, first we have to know what the heck Scientology dogma actually is. Created by noted science fiction novelist L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology posits that 75 million years ago, Xenu, the leader of the Galactic Confederacy, arrived on Earth with a slew of his subjects, only to blow them up with hydrogen bombs dropped into volcanoes. Now their spirits swarm around people, causing both physical and mental illnesses.
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While that stuff sounds like the plot of its own sci-fi movie, it doesn't fit into the plot of "After Earth." But as film critic Matt Patches has pointed out in an interesting article exploring the connections between "After Earth" and Scientology, while "After Earth" may not swipe the history of Scientology, it does strongly echo the religion's practices.
Specifically, Scientologists use a process called "auditing" — which was created by Hubbard in his bestselling tome "Dianaetics" — to re-experience traumatic events from their past in order to lessen the burden caused by those memories. A trained auditor guides the patient through these memories, giving them orders that help them understand and overcome their emotional barriers in order to "clear" their mind.
If that sounds familiar, it's because it does indeed appear to be what comprises the entire plot of "After Earth." Crash landing on Earth, soldier Cypher Raige (that's Will Smith, and that goofy name does appear to have been chosen symbolically) and his son Kitai (Smith's son Jaden Smith) find themselves on a hostile world. Their biggest enemies are creatures that can sense fear. So in order to overcome these literal demons, Kitai has to cleanse himself of fear. He does this with the help of Cypher, who appears only as a voice in his head (via intercom), providing guidance and helping the emotional Kitai work through the issues caused by a traumatic event he witnessed as a child.
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In other words, the entire movie is a depiction of "auditing," and Kitai succeeds in his quest by embracing Scientology dogma. And that's not even getting into much more superficial Easter eggs, like the fact that Kitai's quest is to head to the center of an erupting volcano, one of the central images of Scientology and Dianetics.
Of course, this could all be chalked up to coincidence. But believing in coincidences this big would be crazier than believing in Xenu. After all, while Smith describes Jaden and himself as "students of world religion", there's no question that the main religion he is studying these days is Scientology. Not only has he founded a school based on Scientology precepts, he has also donated pantloads of cash to Scientology over the years. Not to mention he's been hanging around a great deal with Cruise himself.
It's pretty obvious, then, that "After Earth" is a Scientology movie. In fact, some pundits were slapping their foreheads over the blatant use of Scientology as far back as last year when the trailers first came out. Not that there's anything wrong with the movie being based on Scientology; "After Earth" isn't even the first sci-fi epic based on the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, as famous Scientology disciple John Travolta adapted Hubbard's magnum opus "Battlefield Earth" for the big screen back in 2000.
Sadly, Scientology isn't the only similarity between "After Earth" and "Battlefield Earth," as both films have been eviscerated by critics. "The level to which 'After Earth' is a catastrophe is amazing," our friends at Film.com wrote, while the Wall Street Journal asked, "Is 'After Earth' the worst movie ever made? Maybe not; there's always 'Battlefield Earth' to remind us how low the bar can go."
Which begs an even bigger question: If L. Ron Hubbard was such a legendary sci-fi author, why can't anyone make a decent sci-fi movie out of his stories? As "After Earth proves," that's a riddle too big for even Will Smith to answer.
Originally published May 31, 2013.