'Independence Day' Sequel Gets Greenlight, But Will Will Smith Join?

Since his hit sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ended in 1996, Will Smith has become one of the most successful film stars of our generation. He was the kind of charismatic actor that had enough appeal to carry both big action flicks like Independence Day and rom-coms like Hitch. Audiences loved him, and studios knew he could deliver at the box office. He attached himself to big pictures and made them a success.

But, like many successful actors enjoying the extra padding of blockbuster bucks, Will Smith wanted to experiment. He began taking on dramatic Oscar bait like Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. They were well-received by critics for the most part – but audiences didn't want their Smith served with a side of sadness. They wanted the charming agent from Men in Black. They wanted the effortlessly cool Smith in Bad Boys. Basically, they wanted Smith to be different versions of the person he appeared to be offscreen – fun, easy-going, and whole-heartedly likable. And while he may have shown off his acting chops playing boxing champ Muhammad Ali, to Smith fans, those roles felt like a departure for Smith... good, maybe, but not who Smith really was. He was their action hero, the guy that they wanted to emulate. He was the coolest guy in the room — the one who punched an alien in the face.

If Smith was being pulled by his own desires to make different films, he was also pandering to audiences who wanted him to remain the action hero they knew and loved. After a four-year acting break following his dramatic role in Seven Pounds in 2008, Smith returned to the franchise that people loved – Men in Black – for the third film in the series. Agent J was back, and mass audiences turned out to help him top $150 million at the box office once again.

Smith's triumphant return to acting led to several offers for prime parts, including Quentin Tarantino's titular Django Unchained. Smith turned down the role that eventually went to Jamie Foxx, because, in his words, Django "wasn't the lead" acting next to Christoph Waltz's Dr. Schultz. But the film also strayed away from Smith's more traditional — and more successful — roles. Smith's last big hit before Men in Black III was the sci-fi flick I Am Legend, a film that Smith carried without any other actors. After that was the successful — though less so — Hancock, starring Smith as a down-on-his-luck superhero. It seemed clear: Audiences wanted Smith in otherworldly roles where his presence dominated the screen.

So Smith took on After Earth, about a man and his son (played by Smith's real son, Jayden Smith) who return to a dangerous Earth after the planet has been destroyed. The film bombed and was universally panned, deemed “boring” at best and “Scientologist propoganda” at worst. (Smith, who boasted story credit on the movie, claims not to be associated with the Hollywood cult religion, but professes to be a student of “all religions.") In the film, Smith played a serious, stern father who guided his son through the dangers of Earth while Smith's character sat in a spaceship, instructing his son through it all. It wasn't a role audiences were used to – here, Smith was passive, letting his son do all of the action... and audiences hated it.

But it seems that Smith may finally be understanding what his audience wants from him – and that's Will Smith, 15 years earlier. Smith's new lineup of films aren't cerebral dramas or slow-moving biopics, but sequels to films he made nearly a decade ago. There's I, Robot 2, Hancock 2, and Bad Boys 3, and, presumably, 20th Century Fox's Independence Day sequel, though the actor is not yet attached to the film, which is set to hit theaters in 2015. But he'd be smart to — like Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol's Tom Cruise realized, the only way to avoid career tailspin is to return to the franchises audiences adored. (And the career embarrassment of agreeing to star in a film directed by M. Night Shyamalan in the first place.) So, please, Will, join Independence Day and make After Earth just a distint memory. It's the only way we can truly welcome you back to Earth.