Will Smith, why so serious?
Adherence to a simple formula—kick ass, crack jokes, and churn out the blockbusters—turned the Fresh Prince into the box-office King. “I think he really is one of the last remaining people who can still open a movie, and that list is getting smaller and smaller in a shocking way,” Dave Karger, chief correspondent at Fandango, tells The Daily Beast. From 1996 to 2008, he starred in a whopping 12 films that grossed more than $100 million domestically.
But it’s been five years since that streak. Now, with the premiere of After Earth—an über-serious post-apocalyptic drama that Smith stars in with his son, Jaden—this weekend, that guaranteed bankability is being called into question. Worse, so are his comedy chops.
“What happened to Will Smith?” wonders Ben Johnson in a post on Sports Illustrated’s FanSided blog, bemoaning the “blah-ness that has become [his] filmography” and the off-putting surge of his ego. Big Hollywood’s Christian Toto says “awkward press” is “haunting” After Earth’s release and box-office prospects, particularly as Smith’s career has been so quiet in past years. Further, 2008’s Seven Pounds was a critical and financial dud, and MiB: 3’s release last summer was “something of a disappointment,” Entertainment Weekly’s John Young said at the time, as it sold far fewer tickets than the franchise’s previous two installments despite its massive budget. “The real test for Smith” and his status as box-office king, Young said, would be After Earth.
And he may just barely pass.
The film takes place in a future where humans live in spaceships, have discarded fashion for those slim-cut bodysuits that characters always wear in sci-fi movies, and for some reason have adopted an impossible-to-place British–Australian–South African accent marked by slurred “r” sounds. Will is a famous commander. Jaden is his eager-to-please son, who accompanies him on a mission that gets derailed when the spaceship crashes on Earth, which has been uninhabitable for years. They’re the only two who survive.
The rest of the film chronicles Jaden’s character’s treacherous mission to reach a location device that will help save them, but it landed far from the crash site. Will’s character, incapacitated at the crash site, guides him remotely through a series of all-too-convenient cameras and futuristic, floaty, techy computer panels.
If Smith is attempting to prove that Big Willie Style is still alive and jiggy and whatnot with After Earth, he’s already hitting one major roadblock: it’s not very good.
Its score on Rotten Tomatoes, at the time of publishing, was an embarrassing 15 percent rotten, with critics lambasting it as an “expensive disaster,” 2013’s “first bomb,” and a film “that barely registers as entertainment.”
It’s only one part of Smith’s problem. His PR in the months leading up to the film has been atypically bizarre and even repellent. His interview about turning down Jamie Foxx’s part in Django Unchained because it wasn’t big enough reeked of arrogance. A bonkers interview with Jaden for Vulture about understanding life through patterns, being students of world religion, and resenting fame (while promoting a $150 million film that Will drafted his son as the lead for) went viral for the worst reason, from a marketing standpoint: it was freaking weird.
Already, box-office tracking doesn’t indicate a Smith-size hit. Pundits are forecasting an opening in the $30 million–to–$35 million range, which, with a crowded summer slate ahead, means that After Earth would tap out with just around $100 million domestically. Compare that with, say, the $62 million debut and $227 domestic total of Hancock, or the $77 million opening and $256 domestic haul for I Am Legend.
Is Smith losing his Midas touch?
“I do get the sense, at least from the media persona, that the shine is off a little bit and that Smith’s star is fading slightly,” Grady Smith, writer and box-office analyst for Entertainment Weekly, tells The Daily Beast. “I think that people aren’t as charmed by him as they used to be, and that does create a question mark around and affect the box office at some level.”
It’s not all bad news though. “But that’s an American thing,” EW’s Smith says. “What matters a lot is international, and there are few people who can compete with Smith internationally.”
Ignoring that international cachet is a mistake, says Phil Contrino, chief analyst for BoxOffice. Sure, MiB: 3 was a domestic disappointment, but overseas it took in an eye-popping $445 million. As long as Smith keeps putting up those global numbers, Contrino says, he’ll be fine. “You should never write off someone completely. People wrote off Tom Cruise, and look at the comeback he’s had since Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.”
Still, something’s dimmed when it comes to Smith, and if it’s not his box-office clout, it’s certainly his sense of humor. After Earth is so bleak, it’s draining. It’s dark. It’s shockingly gruesome. Smith works so hard to keep his brow furrowed that one can’t help but feel concerned that he’s doing serious harm to himself. When he sooooo dramatically and direly pronounces, “This is Earth,” at a key point in the film’s setup, you will feel aching pangs of nostalgia for that wily Independence Day actor and his iconic crack delivery of “Welcome to Earth.”
“What After Earth is missing, at least in the marketing, is the humor part that Smith really shines in,” says EW’s Smith. “As Fast & Furious 6 proves, people respond well to laughs in their action flicks.”
Karger agrees that action films with large doses of humor are Smith’s sweet spot, but thinks that an After Earth disappointment won’t humanize Smith’s role as a box-office deity. “I think the fact that the movie is somewhat under the radar might be a good thing for him if it doesn’t do well,” he says. “Then it won’t be this high-profile flop. It would be this movie that did merely OK, but not many people knew about to begin with.”
Still, Sony Pictures clearly wants this to be a hit—so much so that the studio has shrewdly hidden the film’s director, the critic-dividing M. Night Shyamalan, from almost all its marketing. The strategy, of course, is so that moviegoers who scoff at the director’s embarrassing track record from the past decade (The Last Airbender, The Lady in the Water, The Village) wouldn’t be scared away from this film. After Earth may not belong in the dungeon with those disasters, but the director’s baggage certainly hasn’t done Smith any favors here.
Says Steve Persall at the Tampa Bay Times, the Shyamalan twist here “is that there is no twist, unless you count [all] personality being drained from Will Smith.”