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'After Earth': What does it mean for Will Smith?

What the heck happened with “After Earth,” and what does it say about the star power of Will Smith?

The questions were bouncing around Hollywood this past weekend as it became clear that the A-lister had a domestic bomb on his hands in "After Earth," a post-apocalyptic science-fiction epic that also starred son Jaden but finished behind "Fast & Furious 6" and "Now You See Me" at the box office.

Flops rarely come as high profile as this. A man who hadn’t had a summer movie open below No. 1 in 20 years, and who saw nine of his last 10 films gross at least $125 million domestically, was now headed for a third-place finish -- and, with a dismal $27-million opening, was central to a release that would be lucky to total $70 million in the U.S. The only other Smith release of the last 10 years to fall short of the $125-million mark, "Seven Pounds," was a fall prestige drama and can't be fairly compared to this film.

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It was, in some sense, easier to argue what didn't cause the failure of "After Earth."

Certainly it wasn’t a lack of marketing or TV commercials, which were ubiquitous. And it's tough to blame the genre. Smith had previously made five science-fiction flicks (the three “Men in Black” pictures, “Independence Day” and “I, Robot”). All five opened to at least $50 million.

So what brought down the movie?

Director M. Night Shyamalan probably wasn't a factor to put in the pro column. Though the Philly filmmaker had a modest domestic hit with “The Last Airbender” in 2010 ($127 million), he had been riding one of Hollywood’s most famous cold streaks with previous duds “The Happening” and “Lady in the Water” and is hardly the box-office force he once was.

Also not helping were awful reviews and mediocre word of mouth: "After Earth" drew a 12% on Rotten Tomatoes and a “B” CinemaScore. In contrast, the crime caper “Now You See Me,” which edged “After Earth” for the No. 2 slot, garnered an A- CinemaScore and a slightly more respectable 44% on Rotten Tomatoes.

But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the subpar numbers are in part the result of the faded luster of Smith himself, at least in this country (“After Earth” could yet have a strong international run). Though Smith does not appear in the film as often as his son, the film was certainly marketed with the elder Smith's name and face, and yet couldn't muster any business.

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Perhaps the most instructive comparison is 2008's superhero pic "Hancock" -- also a summer movie, also in a familiar genre, also a film that, with a B+ CinemaScore, didn't burn up the word-of-mouth charts. Yet that movie opened to a far stronger $63 million on its way to a persuasive $228 million domestically.

All star turns are cyclical, and Smith’s position as the most bankable box-office presence -- over a five-year span beginning in 2003, his movies averaged nearly $190 million domestically -- was bound to end, especially in a climate where properties continue to be every bit as important as personalities.

But Smith hasn’t done himself any favors by working as little as he has. Outside of the embattled “Men In Black 3,” the man who once made a movie nearly every year hadn’t starred in a film in nearly five years. He's not even doing the prestige stuff a la George Clooney or Brad Pitt that can earn an actor some goodwill.

It’s too early to say where the career of Smith -- a '90's sitcom star who went on a rocket ride to household-name status -- ends up. My sense is that we’re watching a Hollywood figure at a crossroads. Smith is taking on more of an active role as producer at his company Overbrook Entertainment, on projects such as the upcoming “Annie” reboot as well as others that may or may not star his offspring. As he heads further into his forties, Smith's fame could come increasingly from his work behind the camera. He’s certainly never been shy about offering his creative thoughts, as he famously did on “Men in Black 3.”

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Of course, the clout that allows a star to get passion projects made as a producer comes from box-office drawing power, so ignoring acting completely won’t help over the long haul. Smith himself may realize this, and appears to be interested in getting back to a more prolific acting place as he prepares to tackle a potential con-man movie called “Focus” from the directors of “Crazy, Stupid Love” and a post-Hurricane Katrina drama titled "American Can.”

The failure of “After Earth” doesn’t mean he won’t be able open these movies. But to rule the roost he’s certainly going to need to make more films. And, judging by this weekend, they’ll probably need to have more going for them than just the presence of Will Smith.

ALSO:

Movie Review: 'After Earth' crashes after take-off

Will Smith's 'After Earth:' Answers to six burning questions

With 'Fast & Furious 6' No. 1 again, 'After Earth' crashes, burns 

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