After Earth was built up around one core idea: fear isn't real. We all wish that were true. But it's a deeply flawed utopia at best.
The idea that we can control, suppress, or completely erase our emotions and deep-seated desires has a lot of appeal. Simple fact: emotions make our life very complicated. So when Buddhism or sects like Scientology, which counts Will Smith among its members, offer us total control over our emotions, many jump at the opportunity.
They'll spend a good chunk of their lives trying to do the impossible. Because fear is real. It's a part of us that we can't control and can't erase. The time and energy wasted when we try to banish our emotions is simply a bad investment - much like After Earth itself.
But that's not bad news. As complicated as emotions make our lives, they're vital. First, because they often push us in the right direction. Second, because we need the energy and drive they provide. The key isn't suppressing emotions. The key is learning how to channel them.
First: in After Earth, Kitai (Jaden Smith) only triumphs when he learns to destroy his own fear. In this case, fear of a huge six-legged killer alien. The problem? It's extremely healthy to be afraid of killer aliens, and other similar dangers. Fear often keeps us alive.
Second: fear and other high octane emotions like anger are very powerful. They often provide the strength and drive we need to carry out key tasks, like jumping an impossibly high fence with an angry doberman on our heels, or coming back to win what should have been an inevitable defeat on the playing field. In more ordinary conditions, emotions give us the edge we need to overcome bad habits and vices.
Objection: aren't emotions precisely what cause those bad habits in the first place?
It's true that we can't call up or mitigate our emotions at will. They're natural reactions that surface on their own. Natural, but also slightly off-key, small thanks to original sin and the havoc it wreaks in our hearts. However, that doesn't mean we can't use emotion to fuel our lives and decisions. We just have to learn how.
The key is knowing how to provoke them. Much like flying in Never Never Land, real life emotions depend on thinking happy thoughts. Peter Pan can't fly. But he can think happy thoughts, and that makes him fly. Because emotions are always reactions to good or bad circumstances, the right kind of thoughts, memories and input will call up the emotion we need. The wrong type will summon up more difficulties.
Kitai's father was wrong. Fear is real. And that's fine. We need fear. The key is learning how to use it to stay alive.