Will Smith and 'After Earth': Minor speedbump or major misstep?

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Image Credit: Columbia/Sony

You recognize the warning from the fine-print at the bottom of every financial investment mailing you’ve ever received: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

It applies to Hollywood, too. Tom Hanks made The Terminal, Harrison Ford did K-19: The Widowmaker, and Julia Roberts starred in The Mexican (a romantic comedy with Brad Pitt!) — three disappointments that featured huge stars in vehicles tailor-made for their proven brand of character. No one is immune to an inevitable hiccup, and last weekend, it was Will Smith’s turn.

After Earth, Smith’s futuristic science-fiction adventure, was pronounced a flop after earning $27.5 million in its opening weekend, trailing Fast & Furious 6 and movie about magic starring Jesse Eisenberg. What must cause consternation for Smith is that After Earth was designed as the precise type of entertainment that had made him the undisputed king of summer blockbusters, beginning with Independence Day in 1996 and built upon the successes of Men in Black, I, Robot, and Hancock. Smith himself is an obsessive student of industry “patterns” and figuring out what succeeds and what doesn’t in Hollywood. After Earth wasn’t some high-minded departure (like his 2008 wannabe Oscar-bait, Seven Pounds). This was sold as Will “I Make This Look Good” Smith battling special-effects aliens. Yet the critics were merciless and, of greater concern, audiences yawned.

After Earth certainly has its defects; EW film critic Owen Gleiberman likened the plot to a “plate of sci-fi leftovers.” The real star of the film is Jaden Smith, Will’s 14-year-old son who plays a military cadet tasked with finding the rescue beacon that will save his injured father after their spacecraft crash lands on a toxic planet Earth that was abandoned by humanity and now is home to all sorts of predatory creatures. Smith the elder is a heroic warrior-general, but he’s stoic and severe rather than charismatic. Once he’s injured with broken legs, he’s left helpless at the ship’s controls while his son battles danger. Audiences expecting to see Will Smith kick some alien ass had to settle for him literally guiding his son through the motions — an unfortunate metaphor for the Smiths’ professional relationship that critics have been only too happy to poke.

But this was still a $130 million bet on Will Smith, who came up with the idea for the potential franchise-starter, recruited a director with a number of recent misfires in M. Night Shyamalan, and anointed his son as the film’s leading man. What remains to be seen is whether After Earth is a mere speed bump — like Smith’s own Wild Wild West — or is it something with a lasting stench, like John Travolta’s Scientology vanity project, Battlefield Earth.

That After Earth arrives soon after Smith acknowledged turning down the title role in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained doesn’t make a strong case for Smith’s choices of late, but his reliance on patterns of “past performance” to guide his career might be slightly overstated by the media. His resume demonstrates he has an appreciation for four-quadrant data, but they aren’t his only criteria. After all, this is the same actor who made Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness remarkable by the sheer magnitude of his personality and ability. And although he supposedly has new installments in the works for some of his most popular franchises, including another Men in Black, he’s also slated to anchor Focus, a con artist movie from the directors of Crazy Stupid Love, and is attached to star in the Hurricane Katrina drama, American Can, for Edward Zwick. Neither will likely require sequels or battling aliens.

But it’s also possible that Smith’s winning formula needs to be adjusted. At 44, Smith doesn’t yet need to retreat from the action-oriented films that made him famous, but he might want to seek out more auteuristic directors who appreciate his fame and know how it can be manipulated in new and different ways. Seventeen years after Independence Day, Smith still lacks a real actor/director partnership — like Johnny Depp has with Tim Burton and Leonardo DiCaprio has with Martin Scorsese — and the only directors he’s worked with more than once are Men in Black‘s Barry Sonnenfeld, Bad Boys‘s Michael Bay, and Gabriele Muccino, who helmed Happyness and Seven Pounds. Turning down Tarantino was a missed opportunity for Smith, especially because it was a calculated risk that someone as established as Smith can easily afford to take. (Plus, can you imagine a better movie role to redeem himself for the yes-sir zen caddy he played in The Legend of Bagger Vance, the movie Spike Lee derided as Driving Mr. Damon?)

Smith might also want to recalibrate the way he sells his projects, a full-court press that is high-volume, in both senses of the word. Smith engages talk-show hosts with an intensity that leaves no doubt that “I. AM. SO. HAPPY. TO. BE. HERE!” He’s not jumping on sofas, but for a guy who conveys “cool” on screen, his talk-show self can sometimes come off as a little too eager to please. Not every plugfest needs to feature a Fresh Prince singalong after all.

After Earth was envisioned as a potential trilogy, but unless foreign audiences defy the critics and flock to theaters when it opens abroad this weekend, it is likely one-and-done. In a way, this might be healthy for both Will and Jaden, who is in a no-win situation, especially in a movie like After Earth where he’s essentially being tasked with playing the “Will Smith” character. (You think Frank Sinatra Jr. liked singing duets with his dad?) Jaden and daughter Willow will never receive proper credit for being excellent in their father’s projects, but they will certainly be tainted with an unfair share of the blame when things go awry, like it did here.

Relying on past performance is a safe strategy for you and your 401K, but for an artist, it can be awfully restrictive and ultimately destructive. Sometimes an artist needs to do something that defies the numbers and conventional wisdom. Smith, who apparently likes to quote Kennedys, surely knows this one borrowed from George Bernard Shaw, “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’”

Time to find that “Why not?” project, Mr. Smith.

Read more:
EW Radio Town Hall with Will and Jaden Smith
18 Stylish Movie Spacesuits
Movie review: ‘After Earth’

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