Will Smith is back on the big screen this weekend after a four year hiatus. Men In Black III is his first film since the mawkish Seven Pounds misfired. But if trite sequels are going to be his stock in trade, he’s going to have a hell of a time maintaining his title as the “World’s Biggest Movie Star”. The only certainty about Smith's future, based on the projects he has lined up, is more of the same. In addition to the Men In Black theequel, he has follow-ups to Bad Boys, I, Robot, and Hancock all in various stages of development. He passed on a remake of the South Korean revenge thriller, Oldboy, with Spielberg at the helm. Then couldn’t get his act together for Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Instead, Smith signed on to M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth, which may be the most baffling career move of all.
A decade ago, Shyamalan was considered a boy-wonder and heralded as the heir apparent to Steven Spielberg. Ever since The Sixth Sense sideswiped audiences in the summer of 1999, his name became an above-the-title marquee. Bolstered by a jaw-dropping twist ending and rabid word-of-mouth, The Sixth Sense is one of the rare instances where a film’s weekend box-office actually increased the longer it played.
His next picture, Unbreakable, is one of the best superhero movies of the modern era, but split audiences with it’s somber tone and twist ending. Signs was next, and proved to be a monster hit. It was the last time Mel Gibson flexed his box-office muscle, and featured another climactic twist that divided moviegoers.
By the time The Village dropped, Shyamalan’s fans weren’t ready for a preachy colonial love story, but they were certainly prepared for (you guessed it) the twist ending. The Village was the beginning of the end of Shyamalan's winning streak. All the goodwill he’d earned with those first few films vanished with string of disappointments (Lady In The Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender). He was branded a charlatan and a one trick pony.*
Shyamalan's films have not fared well in the internet age, where spoilers run rampant. After Earth is his latest bid to silence the critics and regain some cultural relevance. It's a sci-fi adventure set 1000 years in the future, and teams Smith with his real-life son, Jaden. Fresh off the success of The Karate Kid remake, Jaden is still an unknown quantity. While he was serviceable alongside Jackie Chan, brow-furrowing seems to be the extent of his acting ability.
Shyamalan desperately needs a hit, and so his alliance with Will Smith is strategic. As long as he’s able to court star power, he’ll continue getting the green-light. Smith, on the other hand, needs to step outside his comfort zone. As the most high-profile African American on the planet not named Barack Obama, he should aspire to churn out more than just four-quadrant crowd-pleasers. Expect After Earth to hit theatres, twist ending or not, next summer.