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‘After Earth,’ Picking Up the Pieces

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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