Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

After Earth: Mining the Sci-Fi Film for Psychological Gold

Using a model of movie-watching to learn lessons of healthy living

This movie seems like a standard sci-fi adventure movie. Here’s one way of explaining the premise: One thousand years after cataclysmic events forced humanity’s escape from Earth, Nova Prime has become mankind’s new home (a new-planet community in outer space). An asteroid storm damages an aircraft and Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) and his father Cypher (real-life father Will Smith) crash-land on the now-unfamiliar and dangerous Earth. As his legendary General of a father lies badly injured in the cockpit Kitai must trek across hostile terrain to recover a rescue beacon from the aircraft.

This iwas IMDB.com's description of the surface plot in any event.

And while this is, technically speaking, an accurate description, it isn’t the most meaningful level on which the story operates. This is also a movie about a father-and-son dynamic that was once filled with rich love, before estrangement and unresolved negative feelings creeped in to cause emotional distance; now, there’s an unspoken but increasingly palpable sense of yearning from them both to reconnect and rekindle their attachment. This is also a film about facing fears.

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Based on my previously posted model of movie-watching, I believe that to derive the therapeutic value from the viewing experience it’s useful to think about the film on two levels: how it functions as a coping tool and and as a metaphor.

Movie as a coping tool – overcoming specific fears

Learning to use movies as a coping tool involves applying lessons of the film to one’s personal life.

As the young Kitai embarks on his dangerous journey the movie decides that he’s going to have to overcome the types of fears that we as human beings have been evolutionarily programmed or predisposed to fear - animals, heights, tight spaces, isolation, etc. At numerous points in the story Kitai visibly exhibits and succumbs to fear and Cypher helps to coach him on how to take an increasingly healthy approach.

For instance, early on in his trek Katai stumbles across a baboon and begins to experience the panic process in response to the threat of danger. We watch the way in which Katai gets physiologically aroused (i.e. rapid heart rate, trembling, racing mind, etc.), and we watch his entrance into ‘fight or flight’ mode, marked by the impulsive, maladaptive decision to throw rocks at the baboon and run away (i.e. this incites a pack of annoyed baboons to chase him). This reaction, by the way, may not be ideal but it's an automatic survival response within us that tends to get automatically triggered in moments of danger (this includes perceived danger and it includes modern-world danger like threats to our ego) - it's not the easiest reaction to override. The psychologically sophisticated Cypher is able to monitor and advise on the stressful situation from afar. We hear the father maintain his calm, adaptive stance (i.e. suggesting that Katai remain still in the face of the baboon and not employ any aggressive action), and we learn how such a stance can be maintained as Cypher articulates a process that essentially maps onto what the psychological literature calls 'mindfulness' – he tell Katai to step into the present-moment, using all five senses to notice the external and internal stimuli around him, and to slow and steady his breath so that he can think clearly about the most effective next-step (i.e. develop a peaceful rapport with the baboon, not fly into escape-mode) and counteract the naturally-arousing panic process. 

This process that unfolds on the big-screen can be directly transferred to one’s personal life. If you fear more evolutionarily-designed situations like heights or tight spaces or more modern-world triggers like public speaking  you can use Cypher’s model of mindfulness to successfully approach the situation (indeed you can't overcome a fear unless you confront it, right?!). Certainly these scenes parallel the basic concepts and strategies exchanged between therapist and client when it comes to phobias and the like.

Using the ‘capture the positive affect’ strategy that’s outlined in my model I might also suggest that the process of watching a vulnerable, early-teen’s protagonist like Katai confront and overcome very scary fears (literally and perpetually facing the threat of death) can help us to take a more grounded approach to the threats in our own lives. Meaning, if I’m watching this movie on a Saturday and have been experiencing anticipatory anxiety about a big work presentation on Monday, then perhaps I can use this movie experience to prompt some rational and balanced self-talk that will influence more adaptive action (i.e. increase my prep for the presentation, or let my worries about it go so I can experience the weekend in peace): “It’s just a presentation, it’s not life or death; I may get uncomfortable, but I can handle it, etc. etc.”

Movie as metaphor – how to ‘secure’ a healthy attachment

Learning to use the ‘movies as a metaphor’ tool requires that you follow the internal or psychological story being presented. In “After Earth,” for instance, while Katai treks across the hostile terrain, which is the external story, you can take note of what’s happening within him and Cypher, and between their father-son dynamic, emotionally speaking. They have unresolved issues; there’s estrangement, tentativeness and emotional distance in their relationship. We can see it pretty clearly early on and we eventually learn what it’s about. The backstory, in brief, is that the humans now live in a world in which they are occasionally attacked and threatened by some nasty predatory creatures called Ursas. When Katai was a little boy his older sister, Senshi, was killed in front of him by an Ursa. Cypher was off fighting with the Army when it happened; he wasn’t present for the tragedy. Subsequently and predictably, all sorts of messy negative emotions arise to fester within each of their psyche's over the long-run (as is the case with all of us when we experience upsetting or tragic life events invovling the important people in our lives). Cypher feels guilty that he was unable to protect Senshi, which also manifests as subconscious disappointment toward Katai for being unable to save Senshi and, by extension, relieve him of his guilt. Meanwhile, Katai not only harbors self-hatred and a sense of helplessness from the experience, but is angry with his father for not saving the day. Now, all of these negative emotions are normal, perhaps unavoidable. Further, these emotions are not causing the relational barrier that now exists between the once-loving father and son. What’s causing the barrier is their mutual decision not to express these emotions openly and directly to each other.

That’s the key. One’s willingness to engage in this kind of emotional expression is the central step in re-securing estranged bonds.

Quite naturally, as the film approaches its climactic moments, Katai and Cypher have a nice cathartic exchange in which they both express their full range of emotions about this significant ‘Senshi-death’ event in their history - all of the previously unspoken guilt, anger and helplessness underlying the grief process becomes articulated by an increasingly brave son and humble father. Now, the exact content of what they say to each other is not the most polished, kind-hearted or diplomatic, but it doesn’t need to be. The simply expression of the emotions secures their bond and is the main reason that they can walk off into the sunset together at the end of the movie, because it allows them to move past those resentment-based emotions and express to each other the deeper, attachment-based feelings that were always there - just covered up - namely, their love, forgiveness and admiration of each other.

This exchange is not only gratifying on a viewer-level, as it is always fun to watch the characters that we’re rooting for live happily ever after with each other, but it offers as a metaphor the very real, effective process through which significant attachment bonds can be strengthened. It involves the straightforward but scary challenge of saying directly to each other the things we’ve felt about ourselves and each other in the aftermath of significant, emotionally-charged events, but have decided to suppress/avoid for fear that it would just make things worse and be incredibly uncomfortable. The long-view is that such powerful and relevant emotions have to be expressed so as to be reduced and released.

See what I mean about “After Earth” not being your typical, run-of-the-mill sci-fi adventure flick?

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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