Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Darkest Hour

Genre: Sci-fi
Premise: A group of strangers must band together in Moscow after a mysterious alien force invades the city
About: This project has been in development for awhile and, as far as I can tell, is waiting for someone or something to breathe new life into it. The original draft was written by M.T. Ahern & Leslie Bohem four years ago, and now Spaihts has given his take on the material. Spaihts, for those who don’t know, wrote the Avatar-sounding space thriller, “Shadow 19” back in 2006, which won the admiration of Keanu Reeves. Reeves (no relation) then hired Spaihts to pen “Passengers,” his weird idea about a guy who wakes up early on a 100 year space journey. The script wowed Hollywood and finished Top 3 on the 2007 Black List. Suddenly Spaihts was a big name and interviewing for all the big sci-fi assignments. That’s when he landed this job, rewriting “The Darkest Hour” for controversial director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted). That in turn landed him a writing assignment for Disney’s “Children of Mars,” and of course, the biggest deal of his career so far, the Alien reimagining for Ridley Scott.
Writer: Jon Spaihts
Details: 118 pages (November 30th, 2008 draft)

When you look at the writers out there today, there really isn’t anyone who’s churning out consistently good sci-fi, which is probably why Spaihts (a name I couldn’t pronounce with a blaster to my head) surprised everyone by landing the Alien reboot. But is it that surprising? Roger definitely loved Shadow 19. And Passengers is one of those scripts it seems like everyone loves (except for one person, notably). So I decided to momentarily forego all this touchy-feely Sundance fare and finish up the Spaihts trifecta. Let’s get our hands dirty with a little sci-fi, shall we?

Rex Halley is an American entrepreneur trying to take advantage of Moscow’s new influx of wealth. Or, at least, Moscow’s new influx of wealth two years ago, when this script was written and people had wealth. Equal parts eager and na├»ve, the 27 year old Trump aspiree cracks the deal of a lifetime, making him a millionaire within seconds, only to have it sucked away when his company’s board of trustees, all Russian, unanimously vote to fire him. A few minutes later and he’s just as unemployed as the guy who stands in front of your local Jack In The Box.

In the meantime we meet Natalie, an American abroad looking for some fun, Vika, a waifish 16 year old Russian girl, Sean, a dorky American video game developer, Skyler, a dickhead lead singer for an American metal band, and Matvei, a “don’t fuck with me” Russian policeman as big as the horse he rides on. Each is experiencing Moscow in their own way, working in it, enjoying it, enduring it. None of them know each other yet, but they will.

Cause on that very night, small golden meteor type rocks start falling from the sky, crashing all over the city. Emerging from these meteors are alien beings called “Spooks.” Seemingly driven by light and energy, these evil E.T.s are nearly invisible except for the dense glow they give off when moving around. As everyone spills outside to see what this strange phenomena is all about, the phenomena starts ripping them to pieces. These “things” are made up of a bunch of small furiously rotating metallic shards. These shards are to a human being what a juicer is to an apple. And let’s just say that after that night, Moscow could supply enough apple juice to make sure Mott’s would never have to plant another apple tree again.

We slam forward a few weeks to see our heroes, who have found each other and are nestled up inside a makeshift bunker, jumpier than a trampoline full of kangaroos. The entire city is dead, 28 Days Later style. No electricity. No society. Not another soul in site. Their days have been relegated to scavenging for water. But most of the stores have been ransacked, and leaving the bunker is always risky. There are spooks around every corner. These guys are somewhere around Plan W. They’re running out of alphabet.

Luckily a beacon of light appears halfway across the city – a highrise with an entire floor lit up. The revelation confuses and excites them. Someone else is alive! But why are they broadcasting their location to the Spooks? Could it be a trap? They decide to take a chance and go to the building because…well, because what else are they going to do? The owner of the highrise is Sergei, a Russian Einstein who’s a whiz with electronics. He’s figured out that the Spooks don’t see like we do, so as long as you protect your place with lead lining, you can run as much electricity as you want and they won’t spot you. Sergei is the first sign of hope for this desperate group. Someone who sounds like they actually know what they’re doing.

But the party is short-lived. A greedy Skylar uses the opportunity to steal all of Sergei’s food. As he sneaks out the door, the knucklehead leaves it open. This alerts the Spooks to their location, and pretty soon the Spooks are upon them producing more Spook Meat. Hmm, I don’t know why but that sounded dirty in a weird way.

Anyway, only a few of members of the group survive, and now they’re worse off than they were to start. They’re stuck in the middle of the city with nowhere to hide. Will they live? Will they die? You’ll have to read to find out.

It’s funny. You can see Timur Bekmambetov's influence on the material right away. I’m guessing this was originally set in an American city. But Timur moved it to Moscow, most likely because of familiarity. Even though that choice came from a selfish place, it actually ends up really helping the screenplay. We’ve seen the American-City-gets-invaded thing a billion times before. By throwing these Americans into Russia, making *them* the aliens to this country, it adds a whole new dynamic when the invasion hits. Anyone who’s been away from home when something bad happens knows how alienated you feel, how unfamiliar everything becomes, how desperately you pine for home. Watching Rex and Natalie and Sean and Skyler creep through this foreign land, it’s not just about coming out alive, it’s about getting back to where they belong.

I also really liked the aliens. While they weren’t perfect, they were at least original. They’re not bug like or reptile-like, the kind of aliens I see in 99% of the scripts I read. They’re a mix of light and energy and metal. And that weird combination inspires all sorts of questions. Why are they built that way? What are their needs? What are their intentions? It was a cool choice and one I thought worked well.

Unfortunately the final act takes a bit of a nose-dive. It makes that mistake of trying to do too much in too little time. How can you take down an alien race in 30 minutes when in the opening 90 pages you haven’t killed a single one? This results in a lot of rushing, a lot of warped logic (i.e. “Well if we do *this*, then they’ll go over there and then we can bomb all of them together!”), an entirely new location we have to learn about, new characters we have to file. In fact, the final act has so much going on that you could conceivably build an entirely new screenplay out of it.

But there’s easily enough stuff here to make it worth the read. It’s a fun script that tackles an age-old story from a slightly different angle

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Spaiths does a perfect job describing his characters. Like any good writer, he has a hierarchy for his descriptions, cluing us in on which characters are here for the moment, which are here for a few scenes, and which will be key characters in the story. If I have a pet peeve, it’s writers who don’t have any system for describing their characters. For example, they’ll describe their main character with a single word: “cool.” Then describe a waitress in scene 48 who has one line as, “dripping with sex, the waitress wears a uniform that’s several inches too high. Her lips are naturally ruby red, and her eyes are caked in mascara. An exotic beauty.” I’m expecting that woman to be on every page of the screenplay! So be smart in how you describe your characters. If it’s a main character, give them 2 or 3 lines of description. A secondary character, 1 line of description. A minor character, a couple of descriptive adjectives is fine. And if it’s someone only making an appearance in that scene, simply give us their profession or describe them in their name (ie. “Waitress” or “Asshole Lawyer”). Let me give you an example of why this is important. Matvei, the horse policeman, appears early on in the script, but only for a moment. He won't appear again for another 40 pages. However, since Spaihts took two full lines to describe him, I knew he was going to be a key character later on, so I paid attention. You don't necessarily have to have *this* description hierarchy system, but you should have some system.