It used to be that if a summer film starred Will Smith, it was a guaranteed moneymaker: First place at the box office, maybe a franchise in the making.
But the 44-year-old actor's latest film opened with a thud. After Earth, a futuristic action-adventure co-starring Smith's 14-year-old son, Jaden, debuted in third place, collecting a disappointing $27.5 million over the weekend.
"It's tough because we're very proud of the film," said Sony's president of worldwide distribution, Rory Bruer.
Box-office analysts had predicted the sci-fi tale that cost an estimated $130 million to make would open just behind the international street-racing romp Fast & Furious 6,which held onto the top spot with $35.2 million after its huge debut last week. Instead, second place went to Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment's Now You See Me, which exceeded expectations with $29.25 million. The magic-heist thriller's ensemble cast includes Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Woody Harrelson and Mark Ruffalo.
"When you're a Tom Cruise or Will Smith, there are huge expectations placed on a movie that are not placed on an ensemble," said Paul Dergarabedian of box-office tracker Hollywood.com. "It just shows you how competitive the summer marketplace is and star power isn't necessarily what gets you there."
Based on a story by Smith, After Earth follows a father and son stranded on an abandoned Earth after a crash landing. Dad is injured, so the son must overcome his fear and brave the planet's dangerous creatures and conditions to get help.
The film was deemed "rotten" by review aggregator RottenTomatoes.com, with only 12 percent of critics offering praise.
"Quite simply, this is one of the worst films of 2013," Richard Roeper wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times.
The poor reception by critics and fans also hurts director M. Night Shyamalan, whose profile has been dinged by the failure of 2006's Lady in the Water and poor reviews for his two most recent films. Sony spokesman Jeff Blake called the director "a world-class filmmaker" in a recent statement, but Shyamalan was notably absent from After Earth marketing and promotions.
"Shyamalan is clearly a director-for-hire here," Scott Foundas wrote in Variety, "his disinterest palpable from first frame to last."
Sony's president of distribution said the studio still has high hopes for the film internationally as it expands to 60 more countries Friday. Said Bruer: "We're still feeling confident that as the film plays out throughout the world, we're going to be absolutely fine."
Meanwhile, Fast & Furious 6 continues to speed past its competitors. With settings around the globe and an international cast led by Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Dwayne Johnson, along with the international language of fast cars, the film has broad appeal for viewers young and old.
"It's just a wild and fun ride at the movie theater, and that's what people want when they go to the movies in the summer," Dergarabedian said.
Fast could enjoy a third week on top as the newest action offering among Friday's openers The Internship and The Purge.