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Father, son and unholy spirit?

At its heart, the new, Will Smith movie “After Earth” is a story about a father and son’s estrangement and subsequent reconciliation.

Or is it?

Reports from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and even a review by a former Scientologist for The Hollywood Reporter all suggest the film may have another agenda altogether that most audiences will miss … unless, of course, you’re an L. Ron Hubbard devotee.

On it’s surface, the science fiction movie is a frequently exciting, but yet unsatisfying film about a time in the future when mankind has left Earth to settle on another planet where humans must nonetheless battle a horrifying alien species that can literally smell our fear.

The only solution to the new planet’s dilemma is “ghosting,” the trained ability of some soldiers to squash all fear, thus eliminating the giveaway scent.

The whole movie seems built around one, key speech, delivered by the nearly emotionless (and symbolically named) Cypher Raige (roughly quoted here): “Fear is not real. The only place fear can exist in our thoughts of the future. We are afraid of something in the future which may not even exist in the present. That is insanity. Don’t mistake me: Danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”

The premise is insightful, helpful. The movie even seems to parallel one of my favorite Scripture verses: “For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).

Furthermore, the relationship between the father and son after they crash on old Earth draws some parallels to the children of God relying on their heavenly Father; and the advice Raige gives his son every time the boy grows panicked is spot on: “Take a knee.”

Yet for all the parallels and insights a person could draw from the film, a dark cloud hangs over it.

From the control of emotion, to “grounding yourself in the present” to even the big volcano at the film’s climax, the former Scientologist with The Hollywood Reporter warns much of the dialogue, message and imagery of the film seems “plucked directly from the L. Ron Hubbard playbook” – in other words, a propaganda vehicle for the pseudo-religion of Scientology.

Perhaps this is not surprising. Will Smith, though not openly a member of the Scientology cult, has often praised it and has contributed over $1 million to a school founded upon its teachings. And Scientology has wormed its way into film before, with the science fiction disaster “Battlefield Earth,” starring yet another Scientologist, John Travolta.

I don’t think the Scientology flavor of the film is obvious enough to turn off the unsuspecting viewer … yet does that not perhaps makes it even more a cautionary tale?

If a film can subtly plant the ideas, values and images of a false religion in your mind – without you even recognizing its work – is that worth the few minutes of entertainment it gives you?

In this case, however, even the entertainment value is hardly stellar. The film spends way too much time in front of the green screen, the directing is often clumsy (oh, how far M. Night Shyamalan has fallen) and the film’s most charismatic actor (Will Smith) is handcuffed as the coldly stoic Cypher Raige.

After a very slow start, it does often become exhilarating, and Smith does a fine job with what he’s given, but too much of the movie is just being carried by special effects and adrenaline, and not enough by fine filmmaking.

In the end, “After Earth” is little more than average movie fare with a potentially dangerous message – not a combination I would recommend.

Content advisory: