Time was, not long ago, a Will Smith space epic like "After Earth" would have opened huge around the world on a July weekend, reconfirming his status as the biggest box office draw in the galaxy. Instead, "After Earth" opened in the shadow of a competitive Memorial Day holiday, underperforming even its modest predictions of a $30 to $40 million premiere, settling for a third-place debut estimated at $27.0 million. Its thunder was stolen by the still-strong "Fast & Furious 6" (on top for the second straight week, with an estimated $34.5 million) and stealthy indie newcomer "Now You See Me" (debuting in second place with $28.1 million), both of them ensemble movies starring, well, nobody near as famous as Will Smith.
What went wrong? A lot of things, as it turned out. Here are some of them:
The Shyamalan Curse. "After Earth" director M. Night Shyamalan used to be a brand name associated with dark and twisty original thrillers, but after such flops as "The Happening" and "The Last Airbender," he's squandered so much good will that he's more of a box office bad-luck charm now. That's probably why his name is absent from the ads for "After Earth," even though he's only a director-for-hire this time. Still, that hasn't stopped critics from labeling the movie as another Shyamalan dud.
Weak Word-of-Mouth. Not that reviews usually matter to Smith's audience. But word-of-mouth does, and it was just as poor as the reviews, as indicated by an ungenerous B grade at CinemaScore. People are just not recommending this one to their friends.
Jaden Smith Isn't a Proven Box Office Draw. That seems a harsh assessment after the success of "The Karate Kid," but then, that movie also starred the proven Jackie Chan and was a reboot of a beloved franchise. In "After Earth," however, Will steps back and puts most of the burden of carrying the movie on the slim shoulders of his 14-year-old son, and it's just not clear that the teen is ready to be the primary draw for what is clearly supposed to be a whole franchise of big-budget, effects-laden summer tentpole movies. Talented as the younger Smith may be, there's also the sense that people are starting to resent his parents' nepotistic drive to make their kids as famous as they are.
Justin Bieber Isn't as Influential as You'd Think. Last year, a single Bieber tweet made a pop star out of Carly Rae Jepsen. The Biebs offered a similar Twitter endorsement of pal Jaden's movie on Thursday, but it doesn't seem to have had any effect. Sorry, Jaden, but there's no army of Beliebers mobilizing to buy tickets to "After Earth."
There's Original, and Then There's Original. At least "After Earth" isn't a sequel, spinoff, or adaptation. It's one of the few original movies in a summer full of retreads and pre-sold titles. Then again, so is "Now You See Me." And it's a lot more original (a gang of magicians/thieves) than "After Earth," which looks an awful lot like Tom Cruise's "Oblivion," which was in theaters just last month. Which leads us to...
Bad Timing. Not only did "After Earth" have to compete with the shade of "Oblivion," but it also had to struggle against a lot of still-strong May releases vying for the same audiences. "Star Trek Into Darkness" was still attracting fans of sci-fi thrillers. "Epic" was still drawing the family crowd. And "Fast & Furious" still had young-male action fans in thrall. Plus, "Now You See Me" showed unexpected strength across all demographic groups. Its audience was evenly divided between men and women, and between people over age 30 and people under 30. Had "After Earth" opened later in the summer, it might not have had to fight over slivers of the demographic pie.
The Not-So-Fresh Prince. One flop doesn't mean Will Smith's career is over. (And it's not even clear that "After Earth" is a flop. It hasn't opened in a lot of foreign markets yet, so there's still a slim chance that the movie could earn enough overseas to make back its $130 million cost.) But it's a troubling sign. Smith used to have an inerrant eye for material with universal appeal, and he used to be able to command release dates that scared off all competition. But with "After Earth," he's opened what looks like a pale photocopy of last month's Tom Cruise postapocalyptic epic, and on a weekend when it seemed doomed to be an afterthought among moviegoers. It's unsettling to see Smith so far behind the curve, to see the 44-year-old Fresh Prince so stale.