When “After Earth” crashed and burned at the US box office last week — the latest in a long line of commercial misfires for director M Night Shyamalan, though a comparatively rare one for star Will Smith — many column inches were spent dissecting, explaining and, in some cases, frankly revelling in its failure. After it dropped a calamitous 61% in its second weekend Stateside, tumbling to seventh place and inching to a total gross of just $46 million, casual box office surveyors eagerly prepared to read the film’s last rites.
But not so fast. It’s no surprise that this has been a quieter story, given the media’s tendency even outside North America to focus on US grosses as the be-all and end-all, but internationally, “After Earth” is far from over. According to Screen Daily, the film opened in over 60 territories on Friday, and topped the charts in a number of them, including the UK, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Mexico — enough to push it just past “Fast & Furious 6” on the global box-office chart for the weekend.
Its international total is now approaching $49 million — not a triumphant result from such an extensive release, but nothing like a bomb either. Here in the UK, where advance publicity from the US was pretty toxic and critics were no kinder than their damning American counterparts, its #1 debut (pushing two-week champ “The Hangover Part III”) into the runner-up spot. Indeed, the $3.5 million weekend gross for “After Earth” in the UK is higher than that of any Shyamalan film since “The Village” in 2004.
Want further proof that the US and UK can be very different markets? Check out low-budget horror sleeper “The Purge” — which topped the US box office over the weekend with $34 million, a figure 10 times the size its budget. That’s a major result, but in the UK, where “The Purge” opened the Friday before last, it was a very different story: despite no other major new releases, the film opened in a lowly sixth place with just under $1.6 million. The victor that weekend, for the second week running, was the latest “Hangover” cash-in — a moderate underperformer in the US, where it never topped the chart and currently sits in eighth place, relative to #2 in the UK. (It opened day-and-date.)
So, aside from the fact that there’s a lot of gray territory between “hit” and “bomb,” what are we to take away from this? Well, for starters, if Warner Bros. ever feels like investing in a fourth Wolf Pack adventure, they could do worse than set it in London. And perhaps have M Night Shyamalan direct it. But seriously, it’s worth paying more attention to the discrepancies between a film’s US and global box office performance — in addition to being interesting from a cultural standpoint, they can often save a seemingly fried film’s bacon.
The total global gross for “After Earth” currently stands at over $95 million, still $35 million short of what it needs to recoup its budget — though with the help of foreign markets, it should creep toward that goal. It won’t be the first time a Shyamalan film has relied on non-US audiences to this extent. Perhaps his earnest brand of fantasy simply plays better abroad, and in other languages. Perhaps the film’s much-ballyhooed Scientological subtext is less of a sticking point in regions where the faith isn’t as culturally prominent. Or perhaps, while many of us are considering calling time on the traditional construct of the movie star, Will Smith is the kind of universal brand who can still sell a locally rejected vehicle to trusting international viewers. That’s cold comfort for “After Earth,” but it’ll take what it can get.