Will Smith, After Earth, and Nepotism: Why That’s a Bad Combination" by George Bell

I like Will Smith. I really do. Keeping that in mind, I feel compelled to question his recent decision to turn down the role, eventually taken by Jamie Foxx, in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained in favor of After Earth, a sci-fi flick directed by none other than M. Night Shyamalan.  Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, God. Why would he ever want to do that? Shyamalan is a laughing stock.” I was all set to agree with that line of reasoning until I actually looked at the numbers.

If you’re like me, this will come as a bit of a shock: Over the last decade, Shyamalan’s movies have combined for $813 million in worldwide grosses with a budget total of $328 million. That means, on average, his movies make about two-and-a-half times what it costs to produce them. That’s not too shabby for a man whose very name typically elicits laughter and mockery, is it? That being said, the average gross on a Tarantino movie is about three-and-a-half times its budget. What that all boils down to, financially speaking, is a wash as far as I’m concerned. If the numbers are all that count, either director would have been a decent bet for a hit rather than a miss. If you’re a little sad about that statement, I hear you, I can’t change the facts, but I do sympathize.
Now, what does all this have to do with the title of this article? Well, since the numbers check out either way, there has to be other motivation at work to choose one movie over the other. Smith is on record about his choice to pass on Django Unchained, saying, “Django wasn’t the lead, so it was like, I need to be the lead. The other character was the lead!” The problem with that, of course, is that After Earth isn’t the typical Will Smith vehicle. His son, Jaden, is meant to be every bit the star attraction his father is. So, it’s not money, and it’s not being the lone man on the screen. What is it, then?
I think it’s plain old nepotism. I can see no other reason for these career choices. I know that there are a lot of showbiz families, but this is the most overt example of meritless familial inclusion in recent memory. On the one hand, I acknowledge the fact that Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, produced Jaden’s remake of The Karate Kid. In hindsight, that turned out really well for the then 12-year-old, as the classic was re-imagined in a very real and entertaining way. So, fair enough, his famous parents got him a gig opposite Jackie Chan. It worked, but the rest of his career should be based on talent and drive, not how influential his father can be on a production.
If Smith had put only himself in this position, I wouldn’t feel strongly enough to write about the situation, however, since he’s apparently decided to lump his son’s career in with his own, I think a reasonable objection can and should be made against it. The objection revolves around the topic I started this article off with: M. Night Shyamalan. Regardless of how much his movies make, there isn’t much room for debate when it comes to the creative side of things. Let’s just call a spade a spade and agree that Shyamalan’s days as an auteur are all but over. His last two movies have been for-hire work, and he can’t even seem to get that right. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit, I haven’t seen After Earth. Just remember that I’m not critiquing the movie itself; it’s the way in which it was made that irks me.
According to Wikipedia, Smith came up with the story, and then it was heavily modified (I would argue to its heavy detriment) and turned into science fiction by both Smith and Shyamalan, who also wrote the screenplay. And just because he can, Smith cast his son as his co-star. I just can’t, for the life of me, picture a world where this would turn out well for anyone. At best, Smith was looking at an okay movie that performed well enough at the box office.  A much more likely scenario, regardless of box office performance, would have been a movie bereft of the creative spark last seen in pre-Village Shyamalan. If the majority of critical and audience reception is to be believed, the latter is what Smith got, and deservedly so.
I guess I just feel bad for Jaden Smith. Judging solely by his last starring role, he has some talent. His charisma level isn’t anywhere near his father’s, but the kid hasn’t even turned fifteen yet. It would be a damn shame for serious filmmakers to dismiss him based on work his father probably coaxed him into doing, and although I have no idea if the trend is going to continue, I feel it should be addressed before it gets to that point.

So, will I see After Earth in theaters? No. The Shyamalan train has long since left the building without me on it. I’ll most likely catch it on Redbox after the fact, and I can honestly say I’m curious about it. The trailers make it out to be a scientifically illiterate tale made for people who like staring at CG monstrosities, but I still wonder if there’s anything left of the story Smith originally thought up. No matter my – or anyone else’s – opinion of the movie, Jaden Smith should be very mindful of his career. Many child actors allow, or are forced to allow, their parents to control their fates, and if things continue along this line, there won’t be much of a career left for him to fail at.

George Bell

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