'After Earth' is slammed by critics: Should Will Smith give sci-fi a rest?

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At least on the surface, After Earth – Will Smith’s new science fiction flick that functions as a would-be vehicle for the budding career of his son, Jaden – appears enticing enough.

The trailers leading up to the movie’s official release (today) had all the ingredients of a big-budget summer blockbuster, in a summer chock-filled with such fare: compelling stars, mesmerizing special effects and a futuristic plot of both Dystopian and Shakespearian dimensions.

While it was highly unlikely (again, on the surface) to ever threaten the box office dominance of Iron Man 3, the Star Trek sequel or even Fast and the Furious 6, Smith’s movie at least seemed positioned to meet the megastar’s usual standard of an opening weekend north of $50 million.

What’s worse: The director or the reviews?

That is, until one gets an eyeful of the name of the director at the helm:

M. Night Shyamalan.

After reading that name, the initial enthusiasm I felt for After Earth was immediately sapped. It also explains why Will Smith – one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars and one of the reigning kings of the sci-fi/action genre – is now being savaged with some of the brutal reviews since…well, The Wild Wild West.

It sums up why my initial enthusiasm for After Earth was immediately sapped upon seeing that Shyamalan was attached to the project, and why Will Smith is now being victimized with some of the most negative reviews of his otherwise stellar career. The early critical returns would make for hilarious reading if they weren’t so unsparingly cruel and directed toward one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors.

The Chicago Tribune’s Richard Roeper unceremoniously christened it “one of the worst films of 2013” – never mind that there are still six months left in the year, and dozens of movies yet to hit the big screen; the St. Louis Post Dispatch wistfully called the move “a bad dream” that’s “for real.” Meanwhile, the New York Daily News heaped scorn on the Fresh Prince’s latest by saying, “Summer 2013 has its first bomb, and sadly, it’s landed right on Will Smith.”

Will Smith’s Catwoman?

Ouch. Smith’s versatility and charisma are certain to inoculate him from the possibility that After Earth could become what Catwoman was to Halle Berry. (Surely you’d be forgiven for forgetting that bit of cinematic detritus, even if the star herself has never quite recovered.)  At a minimum, it gives people something else to talk about other than the state of his marriage to Jada Pinkett-Smith, although it could help sink his son’s career before it even begins. Although it remains to be seen whether moviegoers will plunk down money on the film despite the savage reviews, it does raise certain questions about Smith’s future film choices. More specifically, might it be time for Smith to retire the laser pistols?

The action and science fiction segment of the film market certainly has treated Smith well, and in many ways its still very much a country for older men. Nowadays, it’s hard to argue that age is a barrier to mature actors getting plum roles as intergalactic sheriffs or gun-toting adventurers. The genre is saturated with the likes of aging yet still athletic stars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Idris Elba — who makes an appearance in this summer’s Pacific Rim — and Terry Crews (perhaps once he gets long enough in the tooth, there might be room for Smith in the ensemble cast of the next Expendables).

Still, the potential box office poison that After Earth may become, combined with the lukewarm reception of Men in Black 3, means that Smith will have to become even more selective about which projects he deigns with his presence. Though perhaps not too choosy: Smith famously turned down the role of Neo in the cultural phenomenon that The Matrix series eventually became.

A mid-life crisis for an A-list star

Smith is approximating the age where special effects alone are insufficient to compensate for lackluster writing, weak direction and a waterlogged storyline. All the more perplexing is the fact that the Man Formerly Known as the Fresh Prince received some of the strongest notices of his career for meatier, more dramatic fare such as Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. With all due respect to the cast of The Expendables, it used to be the case that after a certain age, action heroes were sent to the nearest retirement community. Now, it seems many have opted to stay longer at the dance, regardless of how undignified they may look, and blissfully unaware that the magic elixir is no longer effective as it was in their 20s and 30s (Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, please call your agents).

At age 44, Will Smith is hardly poised to start drawing on his Social Security and AARP membership: by all indications, he’s still a portrait of youth and vigor. Still, it goes without saying that a lot of time has elapsed since he first gamboled with alien invaders in Independence Day. Pairing him with a younger actor, even one that is the fruit of his loins, only underscores the age factor. However inadvertent, it reminds the viewer that it might be time for Smith to pass the baton to someone else.

That someone else, however, may not be young Jaden. There is time for him to develop into the charismatic actor his father has become — because let’s face it, who among us could have predicted that Will Smith would have become the artist he is today? Yet Jaden’s soft performance in After Earth was roundly panned by movie critics, underscoring how the junior Smith may not be ready to usurp his father’s throne just yet.

The tough critical reception of After Earth is most likely a by-product of a director who’s become something of a one-trick pony. Shyamalan’s penchant for sententious scripts and surprise endings mostly ruin films rather than enhance them. That said, the lesson for the elder Smith is that it might be time for him to move on to weightier things that don’t involve saving the galaxy.