FILM

The 5 Worst Movies of the Decade All Starred Will Smith

He's one of the most charismatic and entertaining people in Hollywood, so why does he keep making awful movies?

"I, Robot" (2004)

With a new year and a new decade approaching, the endless retrospectives cataloging all the most powerful and lasting works of cinema are piling up. But in looking back at how the art and industry of film making have evolved since 2010, I've found it more instructive to consider the worst films Hollywood has produced. Because, to badly paraphrase Tolstoy, while each good film of the last decade has been good in its own way, all the worst films have had one big factor in common: Will Smith.

After Earth, Collateral Beauty, Suicide Squad, Bright, and Gemini Man.

I doubt most people will agree with me that these five films are the absolute worst of the decade. That's a subjective measure, and there are obviously different metrics by which to measure the quality of a film. Purely in terms of box office failure, none of Will Smith's movies of the last decade can touch the disastrous US premiere of Playmobil: The Movie, which opened at 2,337 theaters on December 6, and made less than $700,000 its opening weekend. And if we focus purely on critical reception, there are dozens of worthy contenders, from The Snowman, to Slender Man, to The Bye Bye Man—actually, all the awful horror movies with titles that end in "man" probably deserve an article of their own.

What makes these five movies special is that they have everything going for them, and they still manage to be terrible. They have big budgets, major marketing pushes, respected writers, directors, and studios backing them, along with the immense, international star power of Will Smith—the star of Independence Day, and Men in Black; the lovable, charming, funny, handsome, and talented man named by Forbes in 2014 as "the most bankable star worldwide." The fact that all those elements can consistently come together to produce sloppy, dull, and incoherent movies poses a mystery. While other movies fail pathetically, movies like this fail on an epic scale. So what the hell keeps going wrong?

​"After Earth​" (2013) Rotten Tomatoes Score: 11%

Coming just one year after 2012's Men in Black 3­—which was generally well received—After Earth was hardly the first bad movie Will Smith ever made, but it was, according to Smith "the most painful failure" of his career. It was also the first in his current cold streak. Since that year, no movie that Smith has starred in has scored above the 60% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. There are a number of factors that came into play for the production of After Earth that may have contributed to his current jinx.

For a start, he made the movie with M. Night Shyamalan, a man who takes himself so seriously, and is so certain of his own genius, that he continues to write his own movies even after 2006's Lady in the Water. Bringing in Will Smith for After Earth was part of a big studio effort to rehabilitate Shyamalan's deflated career, but perhaps it merely spread the curse that Shyamalan finally escaped with 2016's Split. Shyamalan and Smith wrote the screenplay together with a man named Gary Whitta, so it remains unclear who was ultimately responsible for naming Smith's character "Cypher Raige."

Another prominent factor that sets After Earth apart from most of Smith's movies is his co-star, Jaden Smith—reprising the father-son pairing you might recognize from The Pursuit of Happyness and, you know, real life. Will has expressed vocal, emphatic support for his children's creative endeavors, but After Earth came out at the height of Jaden's "eyes aren't real," white-batman-suit-at-Kim and Kanye's-wedding phase. If Jaden was trying to take an active role in the film's creation, it's possible that Will may have been too supportive. Whatever the cause, After Earth's slick sci-fi visuals couldn't prop up its flat characters and the dull, dragging pace. While the Smiths' performances didn't necessarily bring much to the movie, it's hard to see how much they could have brought to such self-serious material.

"Suicide Squad" (2016) Rotten Tomatoes Score: 27%

This is another case of Smith jumping on-board an existing curse. With the notable exception of Wonder Woman the DC movies have consistently failed to capture the spark of the Marvel Cinematic Empire. But Smith can be forgiven for not realizing this issue, as Batman Vs. Superman and the "Martha" debacle and the "Martha" debacle didn't shake out until well after Suicide Squad had wrapped production.

Still, it's hard to imagine a screenplay for this movie that could have enticed an actor to sign on. Will Smith's Deadshot is undoubtedly the most developed character, but the story is a mess of conflicting visions, with a wild excess of character introductions and either not enough or far too much of both brooding darkness and irreverent "humor". Director David Ayer and the studio seem to have been pulling in multiple directions, with the rest of the production struggling to hold itself together through reshoots and multiple competing cuts.

While 2015's iteration of Fantastic Four may have been a slightly more absurd mess of studio development, the blow in that case was cushioned by a storied history of awful Fantastic Four movies. Suicide Squad takes on the task of trashing its source material all on its own—and does a thorough job of it. The jokes are lame, the action nonsensical, and the attempts at heartfelt drama are clumsy and self-serious. Perhaps the movie's worst sin is the badly disjointed editing that only starts to make sense when you learn that it was done by a third-party firm known primarily for cutting together trailers

Despite all this, and the film's dismal critical reception, Suicide Squad actually performed pretty well at the box office—which is as damning an indictment of the movie-going public as I know.

"Collateral Beauty" (2016) Rotten Tomatoes Score: 14%

It's hard to know what to say about Collateral Beauty that it's trailer can't say more succinctly. Never has a teaser tried harder to convince you that a movie deserves an Oscar. The sweeping orchestral music, the cast of former nominees and winners making vague philosophical pronouncements in dire tones. The film's entire concept seems to follow the same ill-conceived Oscar-bate model—attempting to tap into the weighty challenges and lessons of life while bypassing the basic reality of human stories.

Instead of simply struggling with questions of mortality, of love, of the passage of time while navigating the course of real and difficult personal events, Will Smith's character, Howard Inlet—Howard Inlet—meets and interacts with the concepts of Death, Time, and Love—all of them actually actors hired by Inlet's business partners—all of whom lecture him into sorting his life out. "I'm Time. I'm a gift. And you're wasting me!" All of this while a private investigator follows their interactions in an elaborate plot to prove that Howard Inlet has lost his mind. And if you can follow that plot, you too have lost your mind.

The movie's self-serious tone cuts against the wild absurdity of its premise, and ends up continually reminding the viewer of how hard it's trying to be award-worthy. Trying and badly failing. Also, Edward Norton's character is named Whit Yardsham—Whit Yardsham—and it sends me into a Cypher Raige every time I think about it.

"Bright" (2017) Rotten Tomatoes Score: 28%

Bright was Netflix's first attempt at a big-budget blockbuster, and Will Smith's second attempt at making an awful movie with director David Ayer. After the baffling box-office success of Suicide Squad, I guess they decided not to mess with a formula that had churned out popular dreck once before. And Bright certainly would have been a commercial success—if the millions of viewers had actually paid for tickets. With 11 million viewers in its first three days, ticket sales would have paid off the movies budget almost immediately. Of course the fact that few if any of those viewers had to spend a penny of their money to see Bright does undermine that success a little bit. As do the generally terrible reviews.

The film's attempt to build a modern fantasy version of LA was sloppy and incoherent, with inconsistent rules that undermine its slapped-together plotting. There's a tired chosen-one prophecy, and a wand that is an all-powerful weapon, but also generally useless, and also the key to lazily fixing everything, and it's just generally one of the loudest, dumbest MacGuffins in cinematic history. Meanwhile, the movie tries hard to push a self-serious racial allegory, despite the fact that, early in the film, Will Smith casually smashes a creepy little humanoid out of the air and announces that "fairy lives don't matter today!" Just awful.

"Gemini Man" (2019) Rotten Tomatoes Score: 26%

Gemini Man is the spiritual successor to After Earth, in that it stars Will Smith and a younger version of Will Smith in an action-packed sci-fi scenario, and that it flopped hard. Released in multiple formats to showcase the cutting edge tech that went into its production, Gemini Man relied heavily on the draw of its expensive visuals, without much concern for its shoddy story. When a hitman goes rogue, his own clone is sent to kill him, but in the process, both Will Smiths must confront a crisis of identity and a self-serious philosophical and moral struggle that plays out self-seriously while they self-seriously try to kill each other in elaborate, self-serious chase sequences.

Have I given away the ending yet? All of these movies—even the ones that try to be goofy and fun—have a core of affected drama that asks the audience to take it all in like it contains some profound, life-changing message. But none of them do. They are all formulaic, studio messes with directors, writers, and "bankable" actors slotted in with an eye on indirect goals—something marketable, with a big box-office draw or a shot at winning an Oscar.

These movies exist less as attempts to tell stories than as elaborations of high-concept elevator pitches. And that can be fine. Men in Black and Independence Day were produced by similar studio processes, and those are classics. The differences is that at some point either the studios or Smith himself decided that it wasn't enough for these movies to be fun ways to help the audience turn off its collective brain. They had to really be saying something—to have an important message at their core. And the lowest-common-denominator Frankenstein process of rewriting, reworking, recasting, and focus-grouping is just not conducive to that goal. Instead of eye-opening, these attempts at serious messaging come across as preachy, flat, dull, and pretentious. Self-serious. They undermine the fun that these movies can otherwise deliver.

With all of that said, the live action Aladdin recently became Will Smith's best performing movie. Whatever else you can say about Smith's role as the genie, he certainly doesn't seem to have been trying to play it too seriously, and the movie wasn't half-bad. The upcoming Spies in Disguise, set for release on Christmas, likewise looks wholly playful and silly, and the early reviews are good. So maybe, with the decade coming to a close, Will Smith has finally escaped his self-serious slump, and gotten back to his lovable, goofy roots. Here's hoping.

Satire

Elder Gods Apologize for Delay in Rollout of the Apocalypse

Production on the end of the world has been a mess since day one

With June of 2020 nearly here and no sign of the final cataclysm we've been promised, it's beginning to seem like The End Times will forever be near, without ever being upon us.

While the early phases of civilization's collapse into a burning hellscape were promising, progress on the more dramatic culmination of armageddon has been repeatedly stalled by restructuring, miscommunication, and the high rate of turnover within the ranks of the Great Old Ones' loyal subjects.

"The slow burn is great and all," said John Knӕlgghyrt, née Phillips, who was briefly the high priest of Cthulhu's Dark Order—prior to being scooped unceremoniously into his lord's tentacled maw—"but trying to get the big stuff done has been a real challenge." The main struggle he points to is the lack of cohesion and structural order among the death cult working haplessly to hasten Earth's return to a state of desolation and chaos. "It's like herding cats sometimes. Insane, death-obsessed cats."

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FILM

Narcissism and Poison Vapes in Tim Heidecker's "Mister America"

Heidecker is the outsider who believes that his mere existence outside of the political system qualifies him to reform it completely.

Mister America's star, Tim Heidecker, is a deeply weird dude (as anyone familiar with the ancient history of Jefferton or Tim and Eric can attest).

But since teaming up with Gregg Turkington in 2012, he's shed much of the hyperactive strangeness of his earlier projects and achieved a subdued brand of absurdity that can be hard to distinguish from reality.

This is the world of On Cinema at the Cinema, which Heidecker redefines in each intro. For instance: "A web series dedicated to movies and reviewing movies and what's coming out this week, and whether or not you should go see them, or whether or not you just stay away and stay home and do something else… or watch the football game." It's a distorted version of the Siskel and Ebert model of a movie review series, wherein the stars are wildly incompetent narcissists, locked in toxic codependence, growing to hate each other over the course of years—constantly bickering and frequently distracted from their supposed task by all manner of personal and medical drama.

Tim Recovering from Severe Burns in Season 8 of On Cinema YouTube

Heidecker and Turkington play caricatures of themselves that remain just this side of believable. Heidecker's politically reactionary, endlessly ambitious alter-ego reached new heights of reality blurring in 2017 with the spin-off The Trial of Tim Heidecker, a livestream of a six-day trial for the supposed negligent homicide of 20 people poisoned by proprietary vape pens (predating the current vaping scare by two years)—though Heidecker describes his victims as having "overdosed on medicine that was tainted by China." Mister America is a follow-up mockumentary that brings On Cinema at the Cinema to… the cinema for the first time, and tells the story of Heidecker's campaign to unseat Vincent Rosetti—"Rosetti the rat"—the San Bernardino DA who put him on trial.

Mister America - Official Trailer youtu.be

Heidecker travels around San Bernardino, struggling with his Apple Watch in a focus-grouped beard and a flowing suit that might have been tailored for an obese, '90s era Steve Harvey. He runs his campaign out of a temporary hotel room residence that he shares with Toni Newman—his lover, campaign chair, and the sole dissenting juror who saved him from a murder conviction. Throughout the film, Heidecker interacts with real citizens, soliciting signatures for his ballot petition, hanging "WE HAVE A RAT PROBLEM!" campaign signs in restaurants and delis, and espousing his abhorrent politics, all while dogged by his business partner/nemesis, Gregg Turkington—who insists that the documentary is actually about himself and his vast collection of VHS tapes.

Alternative Poster for "Mister America" William Bottini

Fans of the webseries will no doubt find a lot to enjoy about this longform addition to the On Cinema universe and its bleeding of fiction and reality. People who are new to the series will likely find much of the experience alienating, but if they can stick with it, they may find some catharsis in this story of failed political insurgency.

Heidecker is the outsider who believes that his mere existence outside of the political system qualifies him to reform it completely. He promises voters a 100% reduction in crime—with a zero-tolerance, instant life-sentence approach to all infractions—and a return to the good old days of the 1950s and '60s for "the original San Bernardino people." He stands in for a thousand Trump acolytes in a thousand local elections across the country, and it's a joy to see him devolve into violent outbursts and alcoholism as his campaign is stymied by incompetence and egotism.

Tim Heidecker, Distributing Campaign Posters in "Mister America" Magnolia Pictures

In his drunken concession to Rosetti, Heidecker both acknowledges his guilt in the vape-poisoning case—taunting Rosetti that he failed to get a conviction despite having "the smoking gun"—and insists on the DA's corruption—attributing every misstep in the campaign to Rosetti's interference. Watching this brand of crass hypocrisy go unrewarded for 90 minutes provides some small relief and escape from the reality of our collapsing empire. I give it four bags of popcorn and one poisonous vape pen.

Rating: ⚡⚡⚡⚡/5