‘After Earth,’ Picking Up the Pieces

After Earth

How did Will Smith’s bid for a franchise go so wrong in the U.S.?

It appears “After Earth” is on track to join “Battleship,” “John Carter” and “Cowboys & Aliens” in Hollywood’s Contemporary Hall of Shame. Although less expensive than those costly misfires, Sony’s $135 million sci-fier starring Will Smith and his son Jaden had a dramatically underwhelming debut and garnered some of the most poisonous reviews in recent memory from top critics. “Is ‘After Earth’ the worst movie ever made?” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern. Other notices were just as unkind.

The Smiths have been tubthumping the pic outside the U.S., and it earned $45.1 million in its first weekend overseas in major territories, signalling a difficult road to recoupment when P&A are factored in. In any event, Sony, Smith and family would do well to assess why their picture is failing to connect with Stateside audiences.

1. The premise was underbaked, overthought and ill-conceived, and as it grew, so did the film’s budget.

According to one of the pic’s producers, Caleeb Pinkett (Will Smith’s brother-in-law), Smith loved the documentary cable series “I Shouldn’t Be Alive,” about how people maneuver out of dangerous situations, and wanted to do a survival story in that vein. At the same time, the Smith-Pinkett family and Smith’s Overbrook production shingle were looking for a vehicle for Jaden Smith after his success in “The Karate Kid.”

Will Smith, who has story credit on the film, came up with an idea: A military father and his troubled son go on a bonding trip to Alaska, the father is hurt in a car crash and the son has to trek through the wilderness to save their lives.

Later on in the development process, Smith made a latenight call to Caleeb and said, “Let’s set it a thousand years in the future.” That triggered the creation of a 1,100-year history including sweeping conflicts and alien wars, even though at its core, ‘After Earth’ was still a father-son, coming-of-age drama.

“It’s easy to talk yourself into thinking you’ve got something bigger than you really do,” says marketing maven Dennis Rice, who’s worked for Disney, United Artists and Miramax. “It sounds like if they had stuck to the original concept, it could have been a strong father-son human interest adventure story. It would have been a less expensive and more manageable risk.”

Yet Smith has such clout at Sony that it must have been difficult to say no to him when he pitched a potential franchise, with himself attached to star.

The pic also may have suffered from bad timing. “After Earth” imagines that the Earth “evicts” humans, so mankind lives on another world and Earth has returned to a pristine natural state. It’s a different spin on post-apocalyptic Earth, but audiences seem to be tiring of post-apocalyptic sci-fi in general. Tom Cruise starrer “Oblivion” had a somewhat similar premise and also underperformed.

2. Will Smith may have been his own worst enemy in this role. And Jaden isn’t quite ready to fly on his own.

The movie’s greatest assets should have been its stars. Yet neither Will nor Jaden Smith managed to marshall his respective fans in great numbers.

In hindsight, it may have been unwise to consign the elder Smith to a chair with two broken legs for most of the picture. Will Smith is one of the most dynamic physical actors of his generation. Moviegoers expect and love to watch him in motion — running, boxing, dancing — and playing witty, verbal charmers. In “After Earth,” he’s a stern military father, offering stoic advice to his son.

Peter Sealey, former marketing chief for Columbia Pictures, says that use of Smith repped a huge risk. “With Will Smith, you want ‘Independence Day,’” he says. “People go into the theater with a set of expectations, and when you not only go against those expectations, but flip them on their head, it rarely works.”

Sealey speaks from personal experience. In 1987, he oversaw the marketing of Columbia’s “Ishtar,” a buddy comedy that went against type by casting Warren Beatty as the buffoon and Dustin Hoffman as suave and elegant. Made for a then-shocking $50 million, the film grossed a mere $14 million in the U.S. In terms of its misuse of stars, “After Earth” “could be the ‘Ishtar’ of 2013,” Sealey says.

Critics have savaged the younger Smith, who gets top billing. He had success paired with his father in “The Pursuit of Happyness” and with Jackie Chan in “The Karate Kid.” But he’s a fledgeling star, and clearly isn’t ready to carry a movie largely on his own. The reviews have also swiped at the Smith-Pinkett clan’s nepotism. Putting family members into projects is hardly new, yet it rarely inspires such vituperation. Judd Apatow puts wife Leslie Mann in his pictures, for example, and nobody seems to mind.

Despite the bad reviews, Variety chief film critic Scott Foundas says the younger Smith isn’t After Earth’s fatal flaw.

“Some people made the link to Coppola casting (his daughter) Sofia in ‘Godfather Part 3.’ But if (‘After Earth’) was more exciting, more original, it would be making more money. I think that you could have had a brilliant actor in that role and the movie still might not have worked.”

3. The choice of director was chancy and his creative choices questionable. And, the visual effects? Less than eye-popping compared with other f/x-heavy movies.

“After Earth” not only represents a big bet on original material, but an expensive roll of the dice on a down-on-his-luck director. M. Night Shyamalan was said to be Will Smith’s choice. Beginning with “The Sixth Sense,” the filmmaker built his name by crafting suspenseful setpieces or by pulling the rug out from under the audience. But critics and audiences alike have found “After Earth” to be dark, uninspired and dull. Its CinemaScore rating, from notoriously generous auds, is just a B. Its rating on IMDb, also usually generous, is 4.6 on a 10-point scale.

Several reviews have singled out the pic’s visual effects for criticism. “After Earth” wants to evoke the same kind of sense of wonder as “Avatar” and “Life of Pi,” but its effects are taking auds out of the pic rather than drawing them in as those movies did. Says Foundas: “It’s one of those movies that looks too digital. I think it’s overly manipulated.”

4. Press reports about the film’s supposed Scientology messages may have turned off some moviegoers.

Several media outlets have run stories tying the message of “After Earth” to Scientology. There have long been rumors that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith support Scientology, though neither has publicly acknowledged an affiliation.

The evidence for the pic as stealth Scientology is tenuous. The theme of overcoming fear, supposedly linked to Scientology, didn’t originate with L. Ron Hubbard. (Is “Batman Begins” a Scientology tract?) The pic’s volcano is supposedly the Scientology smoking gun, because a volcano appears on the cover of Hubbard’s “Dianetics.” But volcanoes were almost always found in illustrations of dinosaurs and primordial Earth. Still, once the idea was out there, it became a minor controversy and a distraction from Sony’s marketing message.

Sony still hopes “After Earth” will reach $80 million domestically, and that Will Smith’s star power will lead the film to success abroad. Sony and Overbrook also hoped this would spawn a franchise. Richard Branson’s entertainment company, Virgin Produced, has already signed on to co-produce a sequel, and Caleeb Pinkett has hinted that there’s a TV series in the works. Now all those hopes are teetering.

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  1. Donella says:

    Despite enduring rounds of nepotism accusations and Scientology religious bigotry from North American media and bloggers who openly admit to not even having seen the film, After Earth is at $200 million worldwide and opens to Chinese audiences today. Although hard to predict, China has traditionally been supportive of Will and Jaden Smith projects.

  2. James lyttle says:

    In addition to some of the other comments, i do think that After Earth has fallen into the same trap quite a few movies have done recently. Namely, taking their off the ball. In particular the desire to make a sequel or even a franchise, means that material which could flesh out a movie, is kept back for use in a second or third film. In particular, i note the problems with Prometheus, which ended on conflicting and ambiguous note, because Ridley Scott and co, had their eye on the sequel, rather than giving the first film enough meat, to buy in their audience. For example there were scenes in the After Earth Trailers, which were not even included in the movie, probably because they had decided to include some of that material in a later film. Get the first film right and worry about the sequel later!

  3. Donella says:

    Criticism for After Earth was excessive. Will Smith had a target on his back the moment he turned down Tarantino’s Django Unchained with a “no thank you, I’m producing my own movie.” Since then, Tarantino, Tarantino’s fanboys, and likely Tarantino’s producer The Weinstein Company have made nasty comments about the audacity of Will Smith’s hope that he could be in charge of his own show. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the teen from Hunger Games opened a similar film Journey 2 the Mysterious Island at $27.5 million just like After Earth. None of the media swooped in to subject either to verbal abuse, name-calling, contempt, and bullying predictions of career demise. Certainly not the same weekend it debuted. That movie was given a chance. Besides this, there is a resistance and rejection of futuristic science fiction not led by White men. In After Earth, the leaders of the future are Black. Case-in-point, we see The Road by Cormac MacCarthy produced for film, but not Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. We see the ridiculous Django Unchained by Tarantino, but not Kindred (also by Butler). Some people already suffering under a Black president cannot tolerate the idea or fantasy of afro-futurism. Finally, speaking of Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, it is particularly strange that the admitted out, proud, and LOUD Scientologist Cruise gets a pass on Scientology accusations while Will Smith’s After Earth is smeared all over and drowned in it. The biggest secret kept in entertainment media these days is that After Earth is performing well overseas. As of June 16th, estimates are $145 million of worldwide gross in the second week in the marketplace. And this movie hasn’t even made it to Japan or China yet!!! Both Smiths are beloved and well-known quantities overseas. Overseas audiences either ignore, resist, or don’t understand the stealth racial resentment towards the Smiths. We’ve seen similar vituperative reactions to Muhammed Ali when he resisted the draft for a war of dubious intent, Michael Jackson after he purchased the Beatles catalog, Prince when he wrestled for creative control over publishing and distribution, and President Barack Obama for becoming the leader of the United States. Irrational, dunder-headed, envious, outrage towards a Black man desiring control over his destiny and creativity. The charges of nepotism are what prove the point and illustrate the idiotic hypocrisy. Okay for Robert Downey Jr, Ben Stiller, Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Michael and Cameron Douglas, Colin Hanks, Scott Caan, Jake Busey, Josh Brolin, Josh Ritter, but HOW DARE WILL SMITH PUT HIS OWN SON on the fast track???? And shall we comment on the women–Sophia Coppola, Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie, Gwenyth Paltrow… Apparently, nepotism is acceptable only for one race.

    • Well articulated. It’s sad that America’s supposed cultural pluralism is a facade; ideas and culture are completely controlled by mainstream opinion (i.e. white liberals).

      I almost didn’t see the film because of the bad reviews. I’m glad I did because it was enjoyable to watch and was even a better film than Iron Man 3.

  4. Jayden Smith looks just like his father except the handsome part, has nowhere near the dynamic range or variety in his showmanship, nor attracts a room’s attention by his nature alone (like him or hate him, Will Smith has a critical talent like his buddy Tom Cruise – everybody notices him and has an opinion). Will Smith starring in a bad movie helps, his kid starring in a bad movie makes it worse.

    What’s sad is there is nobody in Jayden’s world that is going to tell him this, but instead he will find out the hard way with box office rejections where he is the main act. If he wasn’t worth $millions$ no matter what, I’d feel sorry for the kid.

    • Sherry says:

      I felt the same too – the movie was very enjoyable. Besides, movie critics are extremely narrow-minded and religious about sci-fi being strictly cerebral. This is a movie that spelled Dystopia, similar to how ‘Avatar’ and ‘The day the Earth stood still’ did. And for some reason, much of the present-day world is uncomfortable with any mention of the human race heading towards a Dystopian society. We seem to lack a sense of humour towards the self-destructive tendencies of our race and happen to have an arrogance to talk about scientific-accuracy, when the movie intends to only convey a message. These movies are sci-fi fantasy thrillers, and do not claim to be scientifically, meticulously accurate – Arthur Clarke’s stories on the other hand, had an entirely different theme leaning heavily towards scientific plausibility. These movies that spell Dystopia are science fantasy fiction, and should be reviewed by critics in that measure. I have seen utterly dumb and ignorant reviews for ‘After Earth’, comparing it to ‘The pursuit of happiness’, when a sensible movie critic will instead first look for the message in the movie before attempting to classify it senselessly based on the actors starring in the movie. Movies such as ‘Soylent Green’ and ‘The day the Earth stood still (1951)’, had splendid reviews in those years, simply due to the audience and critics in those decades being far more sensible than us, and with a good sense of humour towards the subversive elements. Unfortunately, the “definition” of sci-fi has got too pedantic now, where only cerebral stories are given serious ratings and there is simply no breadth to span the grey areas between science and spiritualism. Worse, some mindless critics and audience only intend to watch sci-fi for the graphics, and obviously do not find what “they” expect, and then log on to a website such as this one to promptly provide their “valuable” feedback and one-star ratings.

  5. harry georgatos says:

    when will smith refused to inject himself with the morphine is directly taken from Scientology, with it’s anti-drug belief’s and Tom Cruise’s amateur medical-drug opinions straight from Scientology!

  6. Mark says:

    why did this review never mention that maybe the reason why this film is failing is because it’s not good? why do you never mention that this film is terrible ripoff the star trek ‘the next generation’ episode ‘final mission’? why can’t you just say that everybody could see through the fact that this film was simply a way to kickstart jaden smith’s career?

    you sidestep all the reasons why anyone would care to go watch this piece of shit to lecture us about marketing and finances. you know what? sometimes a turd is just a turd, regardless of whether it’s on a silver plate or not.

    • Sherry says:

      Well, Almost ANY sci-fi movie barring Sir Arthur Clarke’s originals, will have a component or two borrowed from somewhere. These movies are primarily only a message, which we as an audience prefer to be conveyed via charismatic actors in a movie, and I find the Will and Jaden duo just fine for this movie.

    • This is not a review. Variety’s review of “After Earth” can be found here.

  7. Tommy Marx says:

    If you look at the movie posters and the trailers, Will Smith looks horrible. He is one of the most charismatic actors ever, but this movie does everything possible to extinguish that charisma. Once I read the first review that revealed he’s emotionless and crippled through most of the movie, I had no desire to go and see it. I don’t mind Smith being serious, but when he actively works against letting his incredible charm show even a little, I’m not interested.

  8. ““People go into the theater with a set of expectations, and when you not only go against those expectations, but flip them on their head, it rarely works.””

    Usually a decent point, but then you think of I am Legend & The Pursuit of Happiness, even 7 Pounds (a tough sell and poorly marketed) did ok for its type.

    • “I Am Legend” is an action movie; it is squarely in Will Smith’s sweet spot. “The Pursuit of Happyness” at least saw him being a quick-witted charmer in some scenes. I don’t think anyone in the Smith-Pinkett camp would consider “7 Pounds” a success – but I could be wrong.

  9. M Knight Shyamalan’s name is poison.

    But here…”audiences seem to be tiring of post-apocalyptic sci-fi in general. Tom Cruise starrer “Oblivion” had a somewhat similar premise and also underperformed.”

    You jump to the wrong conclusion. Oblivion was poor film, started great, but went nowhere. As such there was little need to see it again and no word of mouth to get the masses in. After Earth has been savaged by critics and is directed by a man with a record of 2 (3 at a push) good films out of 10 and a massive streak of films that are each even worse than the one before..

    It is like when people said Super hero films must be getting ‘old’ because Green Lantern was a flop and X-Men First Class was the lowest grossing of the series. If Oblivion had a second half that matched the first, repeat business & word of mouth would have been far stronger. You can’y judge the strength of a genre / sub- genre on the basis of a couple of poor films. If they had both been quality films with rave reviews then maybe, but not on 2 average films.

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