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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
This past weekend, the newest Will Smith summer release, After Earth, collected a disappointing 27 million dollars in box office receipts to debut at number three in the weekend rankings, behind the mega-success Fast and Furious 6 repeating at number one and upstart number two Now You See Me, a magician/caper film starring Jesse Eisenberg and Isla Fisher, among others. All over the internet, headlines proclaiming the death of Smith’s box office prowess began popping up in rather annoying fashion. None of these articles come close to the truth of the matter, however. The rumors of Will Smith’s box office demise have been greatly exaggerated.
After Earth had much more going against it than it had going for it. The film scored a dreadful 12% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the worst reviewed wide releases of the year. The project also screamed Hollywood nepotism at its worst, as Smith’s son, Jaden (who last appeared on film in 2010’s The Karate Kid remake), took top billing over his father (at Will’s behest). Not since Francis Ford Coppola cast his daughter Sofia in The Godfather Part III has there been such a blatant case of nepotism on display in a mainstream Hollywood project. It seems as if audiences let this pass with The Pursuit of Happyness and The Karate Kid, as Smith was the lead in one and not in the other at all, and both were well-reviewed films and box office hits. After Earth’s savage beating by critics probably fueled the negative public reaction to the nepotism on display. Had it been a good film, most people probably wouldn’t have cared about this aspect of the film.
Making matters worse for After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan signed on as director-for-hire (the first film he’s directed without writing), somehow getting mainstream work against all logic and good sense. Shyamalan, once considered a Hollywood darling and the heir apparent to Steven Spielberg (his idol), has become a punching bag in the last ten years or so. The films he has directed since his last hit, Signs in 2002, have seen increasingly diminishing box office returns and increasingly negative critical reception. Although his last film, The Last Airbender, did reasonably well at the worldwide box office, the film is remembered as a critical disaster and is almost universally hated by fans of the Nickelodeon cartoon source material (I couldn’t get through ten minutes of it when I tried to watch it streaming on Netflix). Ironically for Shyamalan, however, After Earth actually gained his directorial work some positive notices, with a few critics calling it his best work behind the camera in years.
After Earth has also been criticized for allegedly promoting a Scientology-based agenda. I have seen the film referred to as being very Scientology-friendly more than a few times online. Coincidentally, the last science fiction film that had a Scientology bent, Battlefield Earth, is often regarded as one of the worst movies in the history of the medium. I don’t know too much about Scientology and its tenets outside of what I’ve seen on South Park, but I do know enough to know that the public rightfully doesn’t want much to do with it. It definitely didn’t help the film that Smith did little to dissuade the Scientology notions in interviews, ducking the question entirely or giving vague answers. Had he given a flat-out yes or no, I’d have been inclined to better respect his answer, but as it stands a vague dodging of the question is disingenuous.
All of this essentially boils down to After Earth being considered a huge disaster of a movie, and it definitely has been so far – domestically speaking. But Will Smith is not down for the count yet, and the reaction to this flop has been far too vitriolic and a bit premature. For starters, After Earth is likely to do extremely well overseas. The production, with a budget ranging from 130 to 185 million dollars according to multiple sources, will recoup any domestic losses quite easily overseas, just as Men in Black 3 did last year. That film, which grossed about 180 million in the states, grossed an astonishing 445 million in foreign territories. Smith is a huge worldwide star, meaning this film will likely be profitable for distributor Sony. Smith isn’t the only actor experiencing this phenomenon either – Tom Cruise’s last few movies have disappointed domestically but have grossed big numbers overseas as well (see: the similarly themed science fiction film Oblivion).
After Earth might end up grossing around 70 million dollars domestically, which would put it in the same territory as last year’s big budget flops Battleship and John Carter. But Will Smith has actually seen his share of big failures in his career. In 1999, Wild Wild West, the year’s would-be Smith summer blockbuster, grossed a paltry 113 million dollars against an enormous budget of 170 million, making it a colossal disaster. It would be three years before Smith would star in a hit film again, 2002’s Men In Black 2, and even that didn’t live up the profitability of the original. Smith then starred in a series of incredibly “safe” films, including 2004’s I, Robot and Shark Tale and 2005’s Hitch. He wouldn’t star in a mega-hit again until 2007’s I Am Legend, a film which did extremely well commercially but is remembered as something of a creative disappointment. Point being, Smith’s films have struggled in the past. This is not a phenomenon unique to After Earth.
It probably sounds like I am defending After Earth when I’m really not. After Earth looked to me like a generic piece of crap summer movie directed by a hack and starring a child who is only in it because his dad is famous. I will not go see this movie in theaters and I won’t rent it when it comes out. I’m perfectly happy living the rest of my life not acknowledging the existence of this film whatsoever. But the hyperbolic “Will Smith’s career is over! After Earth is Smith’s biggest flop!” reaction to the movie couldn’t be further from the actual truth, which is that Smith has struggled in the past, will continue to struggle at points, but is a huge worldwide movie star with a pretty rock solid reputation who makes generally safe career decisions. Let’s not bury his lengthy career prematurely. I’m sure he’ll be back in the next few years with another big hit, and this will all be forgotten about.