When Criticism Becomes Agenda-Setting: In Defense of “After Earth”

AfterEarthSCREENCAP13I need to take a moment here to acknowledge an alarming trend in critic circles spurred by May’s After Earth. I’m currently writing my review of the film for the Erie Reader (check out my work so far here), when I started seeing some pretty disturbing reviews of the film online, and from mostly respectable critics. Amongst a sea of ridiculous, trivial complaints for what I’m calling Shyamalan’s best film since Unbreakable, one general comment in particular stood out above the rest:

“Worst sci-fi movie since Battlefield Earth.”

It’s a comment spearheaded by two articles posted on The Hollywood Reporter, claiming the film to be “scientology propaganda.”

No. That is a heinously outlandish claim that deserves to be fought against in the hardest way possible. I’ll direct you to Roger Ebert’s response to the backlash of his negative Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen review, wherein the critic described a fine line between, “we don’t agree, but you’re entitled to your opinion,” and “you’re wrong.” Though the scenario is reversed, the principle very much applies. I’m calling out these so-called critics. To anyone who truly believes After Earth is even minutely comparable to Battlefield Earth in terms of quality: you are wrong. You are horribly, horribly wrong. You are no more right than an internet troll who claims Iron Man was the worst comic book movie since Batman & Robin. And you should be ashamed for writing as much.

The truth is, from what I can gather, it seems critics went in, guns loaded, looking for ways to slander Shyamalan, Smith, his 14-year-old son, and their film in any possible way, including naturally scouring the film for any and all connections, however fleeting, to Scientology, just based on Smith’s reported beliefs. And apart from now completely losing my readership, The Hollywood Reporter has done quite a lot to purport its message as truth, even bringing in a “former scientologist” to back up its claims. And really, what better ploy to hurt After Earth commercially then to claim its star is somehow conspiring to use his latest film as propaganda? That’s right folks, lock your doors, Will Smith is trying to brainwash your children!

But let’s address some of the more, shall we say, legitimate critiques of the film first.

Quite a few reviews have called Will Smith’s acting wooden, a wholly ridiculous claim. Smith’s performance was excellent, a surprising sign of maturation from an actor most known for his comic relief. His stoic, stern mannerisms in After Earth are a part of the performance – he’s playing a hard-ass army commander who has learned to control and suppress his fear. So if the performance calls for that level of restraint, what’s the problem? Sure, the criticism might be legitimate if Smith weren’t a proven, capable actor whose considerable abilities weren’t well known. But even then, the film clearly called for a restrained performance, something which should also dispel many critics’ whining that the film is “humorless.” Yes, because when I go to see a movie from the director of The Sixth Sense, I’m expecting a laugh riot. Excluding, of course, the unintentional hilarity of The Happening.

I’ve also seen complaints about the dialogue in the film.  Yet this is a sci-fi film; nobody complains about the ridiculous dialogue of, say, Star Wars, because not only are the line readings excellent, but the fact that the dialogue seems so removed from present-day dialect really helps transport the viewer into that galaxy far, far, away. The same applies to After Earth – near-otherworldly dialect, or “bad” writing, whatever you want to call it, actually works in the film’s favor.

Critics have also flung accusations of nepotism onto the elder Smith, with in reality, the film plays all the better with the inclusion of the real-life relationship, acting as a heartfelt, emotional passing-of-the-torch between father and son, within and outside of the context of the film. Would critics have preferred some other, random 14-year-old African-American child to replace Jaden? Why, when Jaden is clearly perfectly capable of carrying the role himself? He’s a bit rough around the edges, sure, but he’s certainly got potential, something which again works in the film’s favor, given its subject matter about a boy coming of age.

Finally, we have the rather complicated issue that The Hollywood Reporter has graciously presented us with, that somehow After Earth is comparable to Battlefield Earth and contains several connections to Scientology. This is where legitimate criticism of the film itself ends and sensationalism begins. It’s also the kind of thing that gives film criticism a bad name – there’s nothing wrong with giving a film its day in court and reacting negatively, but when you’re trashing a film based on its star’s belief system, you’ve ceased to criticize. You’re now spearheading an agenda.

Let’s first point out that the articles namedrop Tom Cruise’s Oblivion as also bearing traits in common with Scientology. So we’re to believe that literally any time an actor with connections to the group stars in a sci-fi film, that the film is automatically “propaganda” for said group? Sounds fair…

The Reporter article provides some “evidence” of the film’s Scientology connection, citing elements such as the volcano, present in a single shot of the film, as a common image in the religion. What the article doesn’t acknowledge is that, believe it or not, volcanoes aren’t exactly limited to Scientologist imagery. Hell, just look at the hero’s journey, which sees the hero travel to hell and back, a quest which often manifests itself as a literal hell with fire and brimstone. Could this volcano not represent Hades, or Hell, or any other cave/underworld for which the hero to enter and overcome? My point is, every bit of “evidence” from the film the Reporter argues is derived from Scientology – the white uniforms, shapes of spacecraft, etc. – can just as easily be tied to any other religion or mythology. So what if Will Smith is a Scientologist? Director M. Night Shyamalan went to Catholic and Episcopal schools, and is Buddhist. I’d like to think the guy knows a thing or two about the commonalities between religions. Is it so far-fetched to believe After Earth shares many spiritual tropes with mythology/religion in general, not just Scientology? And are we really claiming that Shyamalan agreed to use his soulful directorial talents to helm a fucking Scientology commercial? Seriously?

This is of course ignoring the fact that After Earth is a good film regardless of its potential religious ties. Which is why I’m so offended by the Battlefield Earth comparison – that film is regarded as one of the worst ever made, not because of its connection to Scientology, but because it was so poorly made. Barring the films sharing a genre and the second word of their titles, After Earth is, again, not even remotely comparable. So with the stigma Scientology has in society, the Reporter has, intentionally or not (likely the former), driven people away from After Earth, thereby robbing it of a chance to be fairly evaluated and appreciated by the public. Essentially, After Earth, a film which a lot of talented people clearly worked very hard on, is now the victim of a Scientology witch hunt.

Eek! A Scientologist! BURN HIM!

And really, dismissing any film because of the belief system of its cast and crew is childish, textbook xenophobia that has no place in respectable journalism. Far be it from me to defend Scientology, but there’s something to be said when a news organization is plugging their own divisive, rabble-rousing agenda over legitimate analysis. Here’s a thought: how about just letting people believe what they want to believe?

My point is twofold: Not only does After Earth have zero concrete evidence of Scientologist propaganda, but attacking Scientology to get at a film just because you didn’t like it is wrong, wrong, wrong. As is prolonging further misunderstanding and disdain for peoples with different beliefs, for that matter. I feel truly sorry for the people involved in the making of After Earth, their efforts now thankless in part due to the misinformation spread by certain critics. But not by me; I maintain that the film is rich in spirituality, a smart, solid sci-fi blockbuster with more heart than most other films released thus far in the year.

And, most importantly, it deserves to be seen and appreciated by a fair, unbiased audience.

To sum up, let’s look at a couple comments from the article that were clearly more informed than the articles themselves:

Says Angelo Barovier:

So, let’s say the movie intentionally uses themes from Scientology and is either propagandist or just preachy. Is it still an entertaining sci-fi film? Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was steeped in Christendom but it was still thoroughly entertaining. Everything from The Exorcist to Bruce Almighty all hit their marks regardless of the source of their content.

So, are we just being spiteful and ruining a chance at quality entertainment or is the movie just not enjoyable?

And another comment from KeepOnLearning:

Plan on seeing it! Worth it as a good sci-fi romp.

And if you don’t like a movie with any philosophical or life message, stick to TV cartoons. OOPS! Even they are rife with helpful and usable moral lessons. But no one complains about them.

Yet pot-head and psych-med shills complain about anything that can be tangentially connected to Scientology.

OR…they could step back and ask, “Do those life lessons actually make sense? Do we need an occasional reminder in those directions?”

Naah. That’s too much like honesty.



5 thoughts on “When Criticism Becomes Agenda-Setting: In Defense of “After Earth”

  1. Thank you so much! You said everything I’ve been telling people since “After Earth” was released. Too many people were reading too much into it, when it’s a good film worth seeing. You hit the nail on the head!

  2. Thank you ! Thank you! Thank you! For writing this. I saw this movie being trashed everywhere, but imo ,it’s one of the best movies released last year. Its deep, thoughtful, exploration of a father /son relationship really struck a cord with me. I connected emotionally with it in a way I didn’t to the superhero movies I watched all summer. I just didn’t get why so many people hated this movie . I agree that there was an agenda behind the critics trashing it before it was even properly released and I’m glad I’m not the only person recognizing the merits of this film. Maybe over time it will get the recognition it deserves.

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