Will Smith conceived this story when he was watching the television show I Shouldn’t Be Alive with his brother-in-law Caleeb Pinkett. It was originally not a science fiction story but about a father and son crashing their car in the mountains or some remote region, with the son having to go out and get rescue for his father. Will Smith then decided to change the setting to 1000 years in the future, which imposed a higher budget. Smith had his production company Overbrook contact Gary Whitta (who was then known for his script for The Book of Eli) with a simple log line for a movie: a father and son crash landed on Earth 1000 years after it had been abandoned by humankind. Impressed with his idea and excited about the opportunity to work with him, Whitta fleshed out Smith’s idea and pitched it to him, subsequently becoming the first employee on the project.
M. Night Shyamalan was attached to this project then entitled One Thousand A. E. as his next directorial effort, three months after the massive critical failure of The Last Airbender, and quietly shelved his own secret untitled project with Bruce Willis, Bradley Cooper, and Gwyneth Paltrow loosely attached. At the time, it was only scripted by Gary Whitta and starred Jaden Smith. There was another starring role for an adult male, but sources indicated that Will Smith would not be taking it on. Sony Pictures Entertainment has a first-look deal with Overbrook, so it was expected to be the studio home for A.E. Shyamalan later suggested the film may feature other members of the Smith family, and that it may not be in 3D but he had “an idea for something kind of technically interesting.”
In December 2011, Columbia Pictures, a subsidiary of Sony, signed Will Smith and son Jaden Smith to star in the film with Shyamalan directing. Shyamalan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gary Whitta, will be producing the film with Overbrook’s James Lassiter, Smith, Ken Stovitz, and Jada Pinkett Smith. Doug Belgrad, president of Columbia Pictures, made the announcement and said, “Night is an outstanding filmmaker who has a tremendous vision for this science-fiction adventure story and we couldn’t be more excited to be working again with Jaden after our experiences on The Pursuit of Happyness and The Karate Kid,” and added “We’re thrilled to have the two of them together on this project”. Shyamalan also added, “The chance to make a scary, science-fiction film starring Jaden and Will is my dream project.”Will Smith’s decision to take on the starring adult male role required him to step aside in producing and starring in the Hurricane Katrina drama The American Can, and offered the lead role to Denzel Washington instead. The shooting of the movie was also pushed back from September 2011 to January 2012.