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'After Earth' landing with baggage

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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."

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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."

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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.

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"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.)

Shyamalan's absence from the marquee, meanwhile, suggests a metaphorical lack of freedom: movie jail.

Bursting onto the scene with 1999's "The Sixth Sense" – a supernatural drama nominated for six Academy Awards including best picture — the filmmaker was hailed as "the next Spielberg" by Newsweek and praised for mixing exacting technical finesse with a kind emotional restraint uncommon to genre material. But he has largely failed to live up to those lofty early expectations, and his last few movies have struggled commercially and critically.

"The Last Airbender," Shyamalan's 2010 live-action adaptation of the Nickelodeon animated series, cost $150 million to make and took in $320 million worldwide. But Paramount Pictures had to spend significantly on distribution and marketing, and the film was regarded as an under-earner by Hollywood's relative standards.

The director's 2006 fantasy "Lady in the Water" only broke even, and while both his doomsday thriller "The Happening" (2008) and his 2004 psychological nail-biter "The Village" showed solid box-office returns, they were savaged by critics.

"M. Night Shyamalan has lost the touch that made 'The Sixth Sense' a suspense classic and his standing as a young master of creepiness in the grand Hitchcock tradition," Richard Corliss wrote in a review of "The Happening" for Time. "He's just 37, but his best films are so far behind him, it's as if he's forgotten how he made them work."

After an extended run as an auteur with the creative leeway to develop and shoot his own material with minimal studio interference, "After Earth" arrives as Shyamalan's first outing as a for-hire filmmaker – one with a reputation for being "difficult."

That image was fleshed out in the 2006 tell-all "The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale," written by Michael Bamberger with Shyamalan's cooperation. In vivid detail, the book chronicles the director's head-banging with Disney executives during the tumultuous production of "Lady in the Water."

In some passages, Shyamalan gave fodder to the author to needle his Disney bosses by name. "Sometimes Night would close his eyes and see little oval black-and-white head shots of Nina Jacobson and Oren Aviv and Dick Cook floating around in his head," Bamberger wrote, "unwanted house guests that would not leave."

"After Earth" was initially scheduled to open June 7 against the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson comedy "The Internship"; Sony moved it up a week and now the film looks to be facing comparatively weaker competition: the magician bank-heist thriller "Now You See Me." According to those who have seen pre-release audience surveys, "After Earth" is projected to take in a soft $35 million this weekend.

chris.lee@latimes.com

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