Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Inherit the Earth

Genre: Sci-Fi Adventure
Premise: The last human on earth, a young girl, is protected by an army of robots against an even bigger army of zombies.
About: Zombies vs. Robots (Inherit the Earth) is yet another graphic novel that has been translated into a screenplay. The geek-tastic set up feels like a kissing cousin to All You Need Is Kill, a graphic novel about a young man forced to take on an alien army over and over again. While both scripts seem to be catered to the tween crowd, both also have soft chewy emotional cores, especially Inherit the Earth. The writer, Petty, has made his name mostly in the videogame world, working on such titles as Batman Begins and Splinter Cell.
Writer: JT Petty (based on the graphic novel by Chris Ryall & Ashley Wood)
Details: 115 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I don't know if Inherit the Earth will ever get made. It's such a bizarre idea I'm not sure your average audience member can wrap their head around it. I mean let's be honest. It has robots. And zombies. And time travel. This goes beyond Blake Snyder's double mumbo-jumbo into triple mumbo-jumbo. Does the third mumbo-jumbo cancel out the second mumbo-jumbo? I sure hope so, because if people can accept this, they're going to find one of the more heartfelt science-fiction movies ever made.

Inherit the Earth is about a crazy scientist named Dr. Satterfield who's consumed with building a time machine. He's helped around his lab mostly by robots - I'm presuming this is sometime in the future - most notably his young-looking robot assistant, William.

Satterfield goes a little nuts, insisting that he try his time machine himself, even though it hasn't been tested properly. Before his assistants can stop him, he leaps through, only to come back 3 seconds later as a raging flesh eating zombie. He starts munching on everyone who subsequently start munching on everyone else, and before you know it, the entire world is one big zombie party.

Cut to seven years later where the last human alive - a young girl named Lucy - is being holed up in the US government's indestructible Cheyenne Mountain base. Lucy is the last hope for humankind, so the entire mountain is fortified by hundreds if not thousands of military robots.

Now up until this point, keeping the zombies at bay has been easy. As we all know, the only thing slower than a zombie is a Walmart customer. But what these robots don't know is that the zombies have evolved and there are now "smart" zombies. So when a huge army of zombies strategically breaks through the barrier, the robots are unprepared. Chaos ensues and the biggest robot-zombie massacre ever goes down. When Lucy's nurse bot is destroyed (the only robot programmed to provide humanlike emotional support for Lucy), that old assistant from Satterfield's original outbreak, William, is assigned to replace her.

William's terrified of being thrown into the role as he's never been programmed to provide emotion. But zombies are everywhere, killing everyone, and there isn't a lot of time to argue. So he and a really hot gun toting mega-babe robot named Rose escape with Lucy out into the desert.

With the zombies in hot pursuit, and with no more huge mountain barricades to protect her, it's looking like the end of the human race is near. However, the group gets an idea. The Satterfield of the past will be arriving in the present within a few days. If they can get to his lab and kill him before he has time to get back to the past, they can prevent the zombie outbreak from ever happening and save the world. Since robots are not allowed to kill humans, Lucy will have to be the one to kill Satterfield.

I've said this before. If you're going to give us a sci-fi movie or a fantasy movie or an adventure movie, you better find a way to connect with us on an emotional level as well as give us the action and the trailer moments and the special effects that we crave. Throwing zombies and robots up on screen is going to be fun for about 5 minutes. But if you want us to stay interested for the other hour and 55 minutes, you have to create an unresolved relationship in the movie that we care about and want to see resolved.

That relationship here is the relationship between William and Lucy. What this script does a really good job of, is conveying the loneliness of Lucy's plight. She's the last human on earth and she's just a little girl. She's surrounded by nuts and bolts and ones and zeros. Nobody knows what it's really like to be in her position. And that alienation eats at her every day. The robots have actually had to program themselves to provide an artificial version of emotional support in order to mirror the kind of support a child needs.

When the robot responsible for this dies, that task is left to William, who's just an assistant robot meant for simple duties. What makes it even worse is that Lucy hates him. Whenever she's upset or confused or sad or lonely, she looks to him for support, and he has nothing to offer her. So in a way, it's like a typical troubled parent-daughter relationship where two people are just not able to find any common ground.

While all the running from zombies stuff is fun, the real story - the thing that we really want to see resolved - is whether William can finally learn to make an emotional connection with this girl. Likewise, we want Lucy to see how hard William is trying. We want her to see that even though he's not capable of love, he'll do anything to save her.

This is what screenwriting is about. It's not about all of the whizbang special effects gadgetry. Once you map that stuff out - once you have your plot structured - you better have a relationship at the core of your second act that needs deep exploration and that an audience is going to be interested in. The further apart you put the two people in that relationship - Lucy hates William and William is light years away from being emotionally available to Lucy - the more compelling that story is going to be. If you don't have this, you get Transformers - movies with fake relationships and thin unresolved surface level issues that leave you feeling empty and detached from the two-hour experience minutes after they're over. Now a studio executive may point out: yeah, but Transformers made $1 billion. Well my reply is: yeah, but you could've made 2 billion.

The great thing about Inherit the Earth is that it gets the plot stuff right too. We have a clear goal here: get to and kill Satterfield. We have urgency: Satterfield will arrive in a couple of days so they have to move it. We have more urgency: Thousands of zombies are chasing them (always try to add more urgency!). We have high stakes: literally the fate of the world is at stake. We have unexpected twists and turns: the strange cult that they run into. Everything is in place here for a great story.

What I also liked was that Inherit the Earth didn't always take the safe route. I think whenever you're writing a screenplay, it's your job to explore avenues you're a little afraid of. You have to take some chances and maybe go into a few places you wouldn't normally go in. These decisions are the decisions that end up making your screenplay different from every other screenplay out there. So when our characters run into a cult, and we get into the scene where we find out what's really going on with these people, and what they're really planning to do with Lucy, it's horrifying. And it's not somewhere I expected this screenplay to go. But that's why I liked the decision so much. It took a chance.

Maybe my only complaint with "Earth" is that the ending gets a little messy and in doing so misses an opportunity to truly pay off the emotional set up between William and Lucy. It's hard to explain but the final scene is like a category five tornado, and because of all the wind and the noise and the chaos, we're unable to experience the perfect closure we need between William and Lucy. It's not a huge deal and I think it only needs some tweaking, but it's a good reminder that clarity is important every step of the way. You can't fake your way through anything. You have to make sure that every single word is carefully constructed to convey what you need to convey, especially in the end, when all the threads are finally paying off. However, the reason it didn't bother me was because the final image was so perfect and so haunting. It totally made up for it.

I just really liked this and I hope the studio takes a chance on it. I have no idea if an American audience would be able to buy into the premise. But if they can, they certainly have the screenplay in place to make it work.

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

What I learned: Beware of predictability and safety when you're writing. They are your enemies. If your script is always predictable and always safe, then there's a good chance what you're writing isn't very interesting. The Shawshank Redemption has our lead character getting raped repeatedly. Back to the Future has a son who has to make out with his own mom. Even a movie like Up kills off one of the most delightful characters you've ever met within the first 10 pages. Here in Inherit the Earth, the whole cult sequence is unsettling and unexpected, a dark place a lot of writers would have been too afraid to tackle. But for me, that's the sequence that legitimized the story. It showed just how dark and terrible a place the world had become, and that made the need to save it all the stronger. So always check yourself. Make sure you're not the predictable safe writer.