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Will Smith's 'After Earth': Answers to six burning questions

By John Horn

9:00 AM EDT, May 31, 2013

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Will Smith produced, costars and wrote the story for this weekend’s new sci-fi adventure “After Earth.”

Because the film was not shown to journalists until Wednesday night, specific information about its plot and its prospects have been elusive.

What's clear is that despite advertising suggesting the contrary, the film's real star is the actor's teenage son, Jaden. But there are other questions. 

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Here’s a primer on six issues the movie raises.

Does it really feel like the story is about Scientology?

Some Internet banter has noted the similarities between the movie’s plot, dialogue and imagery with the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology. At one point in the movie, Will Smith’s character says, “Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create.” Human characters in “After Earth” are detected by alien creatures by the fear they exhibit, and can survive only by relaxing. Some of that plot mirrors Hubbard’s teachings, which focus on overcoming fear. In his book “Dianetics: The Original Thesis,” Hubbard writes, “A Clear is relaxed in a fully conscious state, untroubled by aberrated fears.” An iconic image in “Dianetics” is an erupting volcano, which also plays a prominent part in the conclusion of “After Earth.” Said Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers: “ '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.”

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How much is Will Smith in the movie?

The movie’s trailer suggests that Will Smith and his 14-year-old son, Jaden, share equal screen time. That’s not actually the case. The film’s action is precipitated by the crash of a spaceship on Earth, a millennium after the planet became uninhabitable. Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) are the only survivors of the accident, but Cypher has two broken legs. So Kitai must travel 100 kilometers to recover a homing device that will ensure their rescue. The elder Smith’s character is in constant contact with his son, but the movie is very much about Kitai’s journey; Cypher doesn’t even leave the spaceship while they are on Earth. Even though Will Smith is in the movie frequently, Jaden Smith is its star.

Will audiences recognize it as an M. Night Shyamalan film?

There are no major plot twists, as there was in Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense,” and because the film stars a 14-year-old, the acting isn’t likely to attract comparisons to the filmmaker’s best-known works. Although the director’s films sometimes feature sci-fi twists (“The Last Airbender,” “Signs”), “After Earth” is more of a genre film than anything he’s made before. The critics, who have been excoriating the film, say the director’s touch is nowhere to be seen in “After Earth.” Reviewing the film in Variety, Scott Foundas said, “Though he shares screenplay credit with Gary Whitta, Shyamalan is clearly a director-for-hire here, his disinterest palpable from first frame to last. Nowhere in evidence is the gifted ‘Sixth Sense’ director who once brought intricately crafted set pieces and cinematic sleight-of-hand to even the least of his own movies.”

Will it lose to the second weekend of “Fast & Furious 6” at the box office?

My colleague Amy Kaufman, who’s usually infallible at these sorts of calls, says that’s almost a certainty. Though some box-office prognosticators say “After Earth” should win the weekend, the odds favor Vin Diesel and his muscle cars, which should gross about $40 million in their second weekend of release.  Sony is hopeful that its “After Earth” could sell as much as $38 million worth of tickets, which is a poor start for a $135-million movie with Will Smith, but other estimates say “After Earth” could barely surpass $30 million. “After Earth” isn’t the only new movie likely to be outpaced by “Fast & Furious 6.” Jesse Eisenberg’s crime-magic thriller “Now You See Me” also is expected to debut poorly, with estimated ticket sales of just $17 million.

Sequels? Prequels?

Sony and Smith’s production company, Overbrook Entertainment, would certainly hope to have that option, and there is a listing for “After Earth 2” on IMDB.com. Even though the film’s ending sets up a possible follow-up, if the movie tanks at the box office, a sequel would be a long shot at best. Unless Jaden Smith can’t get hired anywhere else.

What's with Will and Jaden Smith's accents?

We have no idea. 

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