Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan is known for surprise twists in his movies such as "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable" and "The Village" — show-stopping reveals that make you fundamentally rethink what you've been watching all along. Sony Pictures, the studio releasing the sci-fi thriller "After Earth," which arrives in more than 3,000 theaters Friday, may surprise moviegoers with a couple of twists of its own.
Chief among them: that Shyamalan co-wrote and directed "After Earth." After all, Shyamalan receives not so much as a mention in the movie's trailers, television commercials or billboards, which feature Will Smith and his son Jaden.
In addition, despite appearances to the contrary, Jaden Smith, not Will, is the lead actor in "After Earth."
Those marketing maneuvers underscore how Sony is taking great pains to position the $135-million original family-adventure film in summer's ultra-competitive movie months.
"After Earth" arrives as one of the studio's most expensive releases this summer and showcases its most important talent relationship — Will Smith. But the film is facing a tough box-office race against "Fast & Furious 6," which had the second-biggest opening of 2013 last weekend.
"After Earth," rated PG-13, tells the story of a decorated military veteran and his headstrong cadet son whose spaceship crash-lands on Earth 1,000 years after cataclysmic events forced the planet's evacuation for greener pastures elsewhere in the galaxy. They must fight for survival in a hostile environment where every animal species has evolved into raging carnivores that regard human beings as so many hors d'oeuvres.
On billboards, Will Smith's solemn visage peers out beside Jaden's, framing the tagline: "Danger is real, fear is a choice." And in trailers, father and son receive equal face-time. "If we are going to survive this," Will sternly intones in the spots' voice-over, "we fight together."
Sony declined to screen "After Earth" for The Times until Wednesday, two days before its theatrical release, and would not make any of its talent or filmmakers available for interviews. According to accounts from several pre-release test screening attendees, though, Will Smith holds the screen only a fraction of the time his 14-year-old son does.
"It's a Jaden Smith movie disguised to look like Will Smith is the star," said one person who has overseen development of "After Earth" from its earliest stages but who asked not to be named out of concern with damaging relations with the studio. "It's Jaden's movie."
Yet Will Smith's clout as one of moviedom's most bankable stars all but dictates he be out at the forefront of any marketing push for a film in which he appears — especially considering Smith also produced "After Earth" (with his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jaden's mother). He is also credited with conceiving its story.
Meanwhile, the only indication that Shyamalan, 42, is behind "After Earth" arrives in tiny font on the movie's trailer credits and posters — a far cry from the "from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan" over-the-title marquee ID that accompanied several of his previous films. Though Shyamalan has written and directed nine films that have generated over $2.1 billion in ticket sales, a series of misfires have tarnished his once-sterling reputation in the industry.
Studio executives declined to answer questions about why they are marketing "After Earth" as a "two-hander" (industry parlance for a movie with two primary characters). In a statement, Jeff Blake, Sony's worldwide marketing and distribution chairman, explained Shyamalan's omission from promo materials was a joint decision.
"Night is, without a doubt, a world-class filmmaker who we were thrilled to team up with on this project," Blake said. "Together, we decided to focus our campaign on both the action and Will and Jaden given that 'After Earth' is an adventure story of a father and son."
For his part, Shyamalan has remained optimistic and even compared his latest effort with movies by Terrence Malick and Steven Spielberg for a hypothetical marketing campaign. "Maybe the tagline should be, 'If you loved 'Tree of Life' and 'Jurassic Park,' you'll love 'After Earth,'" the director tweeted during filming last year.
Moviegoers first saw the Smiths portray a father-son duo on screen in the 2006 biographical drama "The Pursuit of Happyness," which marked Jaden's film debut and went on to become a surprise smash, grossing $307 million worldwide. They worked together again on 2010's "The Karate Kid," with Jaden stepping into the starring role and Will producing the martial-arts drama.
During the "After Earth" global press junket, the Smiths' off-screen dynamics threatened at times to overshadow the movie. Will Smith's seemingly offhand remark that Jaden wished to be legally emancipated from parental custody for his 15th birthday flooded the celebrity news cycle earlier this month.
"He says, 'Dad, I want to be emancipated.' I know if we do this, he can be an emancipated minor, because he really wants to have his own place, like ooh," the elder Smith was quoted as saying by Britain's Sun newspaper. (The 44-year-old actor later said he was joking, and Jaden denied wanting emancipation.)