Premise: (from Black List) A former NASA pilot with amnesia — also the first person to travel the speed of light — realizes he has the ability to travel back in time and along the way rediscovers his love for his wife.
About: Flashback finished on the lower half of the 2011 Black List. This is Will Honley’s breakthrough screenplay.
Writer: Will Honley
Details: 101 pages - undated (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).
Scriptshadow Choice: Chris Pine for Cale.
Let’s get this out of the way first. Flashback is HEAVILY influenced by Source Code. I mean…at times they’re so similar *I* was having flashbacks to my first Source Code read. The subject matter and the central relationships are different (for the most part) but the structure reads so identical that I felt like Jake Gylenhal was sitting on my lap.
Wait a minute. That sounded weird.
What I’m trying to say is, there was no way for me to objectively review this. I mean, Source Code’s one of my favorite scripts of all time. It’s only natural that if you write something similar, I’m going to be comparing the two.
Flashback follows Cale Isaacs, a man who’s just woken up in a hospital bed with no memory of how he got there. He’s soon approached by a doctor who tells him some bad shit happened but he can’t tell him what yet because his brain is too fragile. Cale’s able to piece some things together though. There are wicked scars on his head and stomach, which means whatever happened, it was messy.
Eventually the doctor comes clean. Cale works for NASA, and in particular a top secret project that was working on a ship that could travel the speed of light. They hadn’t been able to achieve that yet until recently when Cale broke the light barrier for a fraction of a second. Unfortunately, he crashed soon afterwards. Now, they need to get into his brain and find out what he did to get the ship to the speed of light. The problem is, Cale doesn’t remember!
Well, the powers that be aren’t fucking around. They need to know NOW. And that means trying some experimental shit, namely jolting his brain full of electricity to jumpstart his memory. So they take him into this small lab room with an intimidating steel chair and give him a taste of Thomas Edison.
When he’s jolted, Cale finds himself back in his body a few months (years?) ago. He realizes that he and his wife, who he doesn’t remember, are having some marriage issues. Before he can figure out why, however, he’s jolted back to the present. It appears that the combination of his speed of light flight and this electro-chair has allowed Cale to momentarily jump through time.
As the movie goes on and more time jumps occur, Cale begins to realize that he dedicated his life to this project, ignoring his wife in the process. He doesn’t want to be that way anymore, so he starts using the jumps to repair the relationship. But the NASA people are getting impatient. They want to know what the fuck Cale did to jump to light speed. So they step up the voltage a la the “Machine Of Death” in The Princess Bride. Not surprisingly, this has some ill-effects, and Cale starts to die. This means he’s running out of time to reconnect with his wife and save their relationship. Will he or can he succeed?
First of all, I love the way Flashback is written. If you can get your hands on this script, read the first eight pages. That’s about as well as you can write 8 pages of a story without any dialogue. The action lines are not only short, but descriptive. This may seem obvious but I find that most scripts have either short paragraphs that don’t give enough information or long paragraphs that give too much information. To write a short paragraph that’s still packed with information isn’t easy.
And structurally, this script kills it. Both the hero and the “villain” have solid goals that make sure the script is always moving forward. For Cale, he’s trying to reconnect with his wife. For the “bad guys,” they’re trying to extract information from Cale’s mind. Because these two goals are in constant conflict, the story is consistently entertaining.
On top of this, there’s a big mystery we want the answer to. What did Cale do right before he crashed? How did he jump to light speed? One more reason to keep reading!
Another great thing about this spec is that it’s EXACTLY the kind of script one should write if they want to break into the business. It’s got a high concept idea (time travel/NASA/amnesia) and it’s contained to mostly one location. That means it will be cheap to make. This is the holy grail of screenplays because not everybody in town can pay 800 grand for your interplanetary war script. But TONS of people can pay you 80 grand for your high concept time-travel contained thriller.
As for the script’s weaknesses, there are a few. It does start to get repetitive after awhile. This is always a pitfall you’ll deal with if you’re writing a contained movie. So you really have to be inventive and keep switching things up to keep the story fresh. There are a few surprises along the way, but none of them was big enough to ward off all of the repetitive sequences (“Hey, we’re jumping back in time again to have pretty much the exact same conversation with the wife as before!”).
Also, I just wasn’t emotionally involved enough with the Cale-wife storyline. That’s the thing that really has to anchor a movie like this because the “gimmickry” (albeit fun gimmickry) of the premise only wows the audience for so long. Sooner or later they need some substance. And you get that substance from your central relationship.
I’m not even sure what’s wrong with said relationship but there’s definitely something missing. I think it’s that their “issue” is kind of boring. They have a rough marriage because he works too much. Hmmm. Really? Join the rest of America. And the thing is, the relationship actually starts with some real potential. She’s furious at him about something. Okay. Genuine conflict. I can get on board with. But the next time they meet, she’s apologetic and they’re a happy couple again. What happened to the conflict??? I’m a big believer that the chasm between your main characters has to be HUGE. Look at a movie like Indiana Jones. Indiana betrayed Marion. Abandoned Marion. There’s genuine anger there, a genuine feeling that this can never be repaired. The relationship in Flashback is just so…repairable.
But if you take Flashback as a whole, the script is pretty solid. I liked the writing. I liked the concept. I just think it needs to differentiate itself from Source Code and work on its central relationship more.
[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The fake ticking time bomb – It’s been awhile since I’ve gone all ticking time bomb on you guys, but you know how I feel about the device. It’s the easiest way to create urgency in your script. Flashback teaches us an alternative way to use the device though. The whole point of a “ticking time bomb” is to imply that if a goal isn’t reached by a certain amount of time, a bomb will “blow up.” Well, sometimes you can trick the audience into BELIEVING the bomb will blow up even if you don’t have a bomb. Flashback does exactly that. These NASA people need the light-speed information from Cale RIGHT NOW. But why? What happens if they don’t get it? Errr…nothing. But the script never stops long enough to allow us to realize that. We HEAR the bad guys repeatedly saying they need the information “right now” and therefore we believe it. The ticking time bomb, in actuality, is a fake. Contrast this with Source Code, where we KNOW if Cole doesn’t find the bomb on the train, OTHER BOMBS in the city will explode. So that’s a literal ticking time bomb. I’d recommend using a real ticking time bomb if at all possible. But if you’re in a pinch, a fake one can work.