The first signs of trouble occurred moments before the kick-off at the Champions League final in London on May 25th. Will and Jaden Smith had included the venue as part of their promotional push for After Earth, gathering around a crowd of people for some convenient pre-game promotion. The on-lookers flashed their cameras as Will Smith prepared to take a penalty/photo-op against legendary Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. Smith took a couple of steps back, ran to the ball in an awkward stride, and elicited laughter from the entire group as his kick weakly pattered sideways. At the time it seemed like the most embarrassing anecdote that would come from After Earth.
What a difference an opening weekend makes.
The post-apocalyptic father-son sci-fi adventure crash-landed at the North American box office last weekend, preceded by reviews that warned audiences about the film's eerie parallels with Scientology. It all quickly delved into a word-of-mouth nightmare, unmitigated by a lackluster B CinemaScore. The $27.5 million opening weekend placed After Earth in third, behind the second week of Fast & Furious 6 and the opening of Summit's badass magician caper, Now You See Me. Will Smith, who had opened every single of his summer movies at No. 1 for the last two decades, was beaten by a hold-over and an ensemble movie about magicians starring Jesse Eisenberg.
Sony was quick to deflect immediate criticism by singling out the film's global potential, referring to this weekend's worldwide expansion to over 60 territories. Smith's summer films have enjoyed great overseas numbers. His last three summer outings were hugely successful abroad, including a $445.8 million take for Men in Black 3, $396.4 million for Hancock, and $328.9 million for I am Legend. Smith knows how to play the global market, and the extensive international promotional tour for After Earth has had its share of bright moments away from the soccer field.
The star's global appeal is hard to ignore. I'll never forget his appearance in a late night talk show in Mexico, smiling through an interview conducted entirely in Spanish, his charisma making up for the fact he had no idea what was going on. I can't think of a single other African-American actor who has been so embraced and commercially successful in Mexico. Chalk it up to the syndicated re-runs of Fresh Prince of Bel Air that aired every weekday afternoon in syndication on network television for over a decade. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air gave Will Smith exposure on a daily basis, keeping him on-screen while his new films would reach theaters year after year. The television show was a massive television hit around the world, serving as a de facto promotional vehicle set on cruise control . As the years pass, however, the syndicated advantage that made Will Smith such a recognizable star no longer applies to younger viewers. This might also explain why Will Smith's dramas like Seven Pounds and The Pursuit of Happyness, a conflicting tone to his television persona, have a harder time finding overseas success.
Will Smith's trademark charisma is also absent from the After Earth trailers, where the actor spends the entire time scowling and lecturing at his son. The rest of the footage features Jaden Smith jumping around a post-apocalyptic Earth that more closely resembles an unkempt present-day nature resort in Costa Rica.
Sony made a valiant effort to obscure M. Night Shyamalan's direction in the marketing for After Earth, doing everything up to out-right hiding or denying that the troubled director had anything to do with the production. It is therefore curious how M. Night Shyamalan has become a comfortable target for the film's shortcomings while little has been said about Sony's peculiar marketing campaign.
On the other hand, Sony is merely working with what Shyamalan gave them, which according to nearly unanimously dismal reviews, is not a particularly good movie. L.A. Times critic Betsy Sharkey openly questioned where Shyamalan's career went wrong in her review of the film, wondering if the director's streak of box office duds and poorly received flicks is due to "body snatchers, ones from a planet that has no clue how to make a movie."
M. Night Shyamalan's career has suffered a precipitious decline since Newsweek infamously heralded the director as "The Next Spielberg" in a cover-story during the promotional run up to 2002's Signs. The domestic box office debacle for After Earth is widely being considered as the last nail in a coffin made out of bad films with terrible box office numbers.
I'm personally hesitant to join that chorus. We have a classic soccer maxim in Latin America that could also apply to Hollywood: El futbol siempre da revancha, "There's always the chance for revenge in soccer." Shyamalan is only one hit away from bouncing back and reigniting his career, though that probably won't come from a studio picture. Indiewire's Eric Kohn suggests the troubled director should take a cue from Joss Whedon, who followed his massively successful The Avengers with a micro-budget adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. By scaling back the financial stakes, Kohn suggests, Shyamalan might be able to return to the type of films that made him relevant:
"Prior to "The Happening," none of the director's movies relied on huge, effects-driven set pieces (even the train wreck that set the plot of "Unbreakable" in motion took place off-screen). Instead, his disturbed and perpetually spooked protagonists learned of the threats surrounding them by way of whispered revelations and bizarre rationalizations that were more stabs in the dark than anything else. The most compelling ingredients in Shyamalan's first four movies involved the absence of logic (ghosts, superpowers, God and an antiquated town inexplicably shrouded from civilization) in favor of inexplicable dread. It's that very same element that made them so deeply unsettling and keyed into real life experiences, where the full details of jarring events tend to be obscured by the limitations of how we comprehend them. Shyamalan now has the money and, if "After Earth" has strengthened the bars of the movie jail in which he was already partly incarcerated, probably the time to go back to these low key stories in search of the substance that made him a significant American director." [Read the rest of Eric Kohn's piece here].
Putting Shyamalan in the background as a "hired-gun" director was always a lose-lose proposition for Sony and the filmmaker. If the film succeeded, the director got none of the credit. If it failed, as it has in North America, the director takes most of the heat while Sony is ridiculed for letting Smith appoint him as director. Perhaps it was too much to ask Shyamalan to make a big-budget father-son vanity project into a good movie. Perhaps it's too much to ask Shyamalan to make a good movie -any type of movie- period. As the internet spews more and more vitriol on After Earth ahead of its overseas premiere, it is obvious that Shyamalan's biggest contribution to the film has been as a scapegoat rather than a director.
The film's global numbers might say more about the viability of sci-fi fare in the overseas market rather than Will Smith's box office clout. Tom Cruise delivered with Oblivion earlier this year despite not posting blockbuster numbers, and the scaled roll-out of Star Trek Into Darkness has demonstrated a marked improvement above its predecessor's overseas performance -despite falling behind other titles. There is always the chance that the overseas audience is showing sci-fi fatigue this summer, even if it's only June. After Earth opened head-to-head against Star Trek Into Darkness in South Korea last week, placing third in the weekend box office. Star Trek Into Darkness took the top spot, grossing nearly twice as much as the father-son adventure film. Oblivion has currently grossed $186.9 million overseas, compared to the current $147.7 million cume from Star Trek Into Darkness. Those numbers paint an uncomfortable reference point for After Earth as Sony executives focus on its overseas run.
If After Earth fails to make up ground at the global box office, Sony will likely have to adjust its expectations for Elysium, its second post-apocalyptic sci-fi tentpole of the summer. Sony's summer slate otherwise includes comedies This is the End and Grown Ups 2, another summer tentpole centered around Roland Emmerich destroying the White House (White House Down, featuring a role played by Jamie Foxx that could have easily gone to Will Smith five years ago), and The Smurfs 2. A disappointing After Earth theatrical run won't break the studio's summer, but will place an added weight on how well these other films perform.
This doesn't necessarily signal the end of Will Smith's reign at the box office, as many have (loudly) speculated. After Earth won't live up to Sony's initial expectations, but Smith's position is no different than any other major Hollywood star's when opening a tentpole that isn't part of an established franchise. Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp are only two examples of stars who have recently struggled with films outside of familiar franchises. Will Smith can recover from After Earth, but that wouldn't be the case if something like Men in Black 4, Bad Boys III, Hancock Rises, Hitch Returns, or I am (Still) Legend flopped. Until then, After Earth can only be considered as a misstep for Will Smith, a mistake for M. Night Shyamalan, and depending on this weekend's global numbers, a potential fiasco for Sony.