Friday, January 27, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Augmented Geologist (Amateur Friday)

A period sci-fi screenplay with some amazing writing. But does screenwriter James Hutchinson do enough with the story to get that rare Friday "worth the read?" 

To submit your script for an Amateur Review: Send your script in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted in the review (feel free to keep your identity and script title private by providing an alias and fake title). Also, it's a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so that your submission stays near the top of the pile.

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: (from writer) In Victorian England, a respected geologist studies a strange crystal artifact that grants him incredible powers, tears his life apart and sends him on a deadly chase to discover its unearthly origin.
About: This is the part of his query that really got me interested in reading James’ script: “Here's why I think you should read it: This is big budget original sci-fi with a twist (in that it's set in the past). Imagine HG Wells writing about nanotechnology, or Sherlock Holmes crossed with District 9. These are not your usual science fiction characters, and it's a pretty unique and exciting world, hopefully I've done it justice.” Count me in!
Writer: James Hutchinson
Details: 96 pages

Jude Law for John?

First of all, I really like this writer. I really like you, James. In a purely platonic screenwriting man-love sort of way. Your writing is just so…smooth.

It’s now showy. You’re not trying to impress anyone. All you care about is telling the story.

Okay, it’s getting creepy that I’m talking to you directly so let’s regroup. Basically, this is some wild subject matter “Augmented” is dealing with. Nanotechnology, alien crystals, augmented powers. And yet I was never confused. I was never at a loss for what was going on. That may not seem like a big deal but I can’t tell you how many amateur scripts I read where I get confused by characters doing something as simple as walking across the room, the writing is so clunky.

Here’s a paragraph from the script, a POV from John as he’s experiencing his augmented powers: “A searing amount of INFORMATION captured at inhuman speed. Each column, paragraph, sentence, letter is rapidly scanned by boxes of light. The alphabet is being deciphered. And - TIME SLOWS. People inside the carriage are FROZEN. The rattle of the speeding train is now a soothing CLUNKING sound. Scenery glides gently by.”

That image isn’t easy to convey. And yet I imagined it as if I was right there in the theater. So why am I not giving The Augmented Geologist a big augmented thumbs up? Read on to find out...

London. 1894. A young archeologist is out on a dig and finds something remarkable. But we don’t see what it is yet. Cut to John Haldane, a 30-something bookish gentleman with polio. He hobbles into Godfrey Colleton’s home with an excitement he hasn’t felt for a long time. Godfrey shows John what they found on the dig – some sort of polygon crystal buried inside 500 million years’ worth of sediment.

The crystal is unnaturally pristine, which has John desperate to study it. Godfrey allows him a few days to conduct some experiments before he puts it on display at the museum. But when John brings it home, the crystal starts changing, gradually smoothing out into a sphere and finally a liquid. The liquid emits such a strong aroma that John ends up drinking it. And that’s when everything changes.

His vision becomes enhanced to the point where distances and measurements appear inside his eyesight. He can hear animals communicate with each other in bare-bones English. His polio disappears. He becomes stronger. Smarter.

However, while all this is really cool, it’s not what John was expecting, and it’s not like the guy’s had a steady diet of Terminator and Predator films to prepare him for becoming a cyborg. He’s living in 1897. They won’t even have the internet for another 10 years. So naturally these advancements are scary as hell.

This causes him to be manic, out of control, sort of like Britney during her whole hair-shaving incident. His already deteriorating relationship with his wife gets worse as a result. And soon Godfrey is back, looking for his crystal. John tells him that someone stole it, and the local cops start looking into possible suspects. But when it becomes clear that it wasn’t stolen, they center their efforts on John. So John decides to hightail it out of there and go back to the crystal’s origin, hoping it will provide some answer to what’s happening to him.

Okay, so like I said, I love the writing here. I also thought the story was AMAZING for about 40 pages. It was building. It was mysterious. It was different. I felt like I was reading a screenplay I’d never read before. And that doesn’t happen often. So it was exciting.

But here’s where I think The Augmented Geologist became unagumented: A true story never emerged! Or at least, not a big enough story. Essentially, what we have here, is a guy who gains superhuman abilities, lies to his friends about it, then runs to a mountain. I mean, for a premise like this, that’s not a big enough choice. People don’t want to read about a guy running away from people when he has superhuman powers. They want him encountering scenarios where he can UTILIZE his powers.

Let me try to be more specific. Once we hit the midway point, our hero’s powers no longer matter. He’s just running away from people. He could be ANY person in the world at this point and the story wouldn’t change. So that was upsetting.

Also, I didn’t like the passiveness of the storyline. When you have a hero, especially a literal hero with super powers, you’d like him to be dictating the story. You’d like him to be making choices that push the narrative forward. John spends most of this movie running away or avoiding things. Dramatically, it’s just not very interesting.

Now I’m not saying that The Augmented Geologist needs to become Spider-Man or Iron Man. But I do think in order to get the most out of this premise, there needs to be a foundation that takes advantage of the situation. You have a man with powers here. Let’s conceive of a few scenarios that put those powers to use.

Obviously, you can go a bunch of different ways with this but the most obvious is to create some sort of threat that only John (and his augmented body) can stop. There’s this late-story revelation that Godfrey is also augmented. It feels tagged on and therefore doesn’t work. But if you brought this up earlier in the story, and Godfrey started taking advantage of his power, and John had to stop him? That could be pretty cool.

Assassin's Creed

Another thing that bothered me was that in the second half, this felt a hell of a lot like Assassin’s Creed. Ironically, that’s the only video game I’ve played in the last two years (so if I hadn’t played it, I never wouldn’t have caught this). But everything from the way he sees things to the story’s setting to the way he’s running around on rooftops – it feels like that game. This is another reason to ditch the “running away” storyline and make our hero more active.

Finally, I thought the ending was too trippy. It was sort of cool but once you commit to these metaphysical abstract endings, it starts to feel like you’re fudging things. That may not be your intention. But that’s how it feels to the audience. I mean, I’m still not sure what happened exactly. He was a beacon? So the alien race could find earth? Hmmm… Kind of confusing.

But like I said, I think James is PACKED with talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if 3-4 years from now, you see him writing some big Hollywood sci-fi film. And hey, if he can get a handle on this story and give us something more mainstream and less existential, he might be able to salvage it. Either way, he’s a writer to look out for.

Script Link: The Augmented Geologist

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: One thing you want to be conscious of, especially with high concept ideas, is that each successive plot point in your story be better/more interesting than the last. Because what I see with a lot of screenplays is the opposite. The script starts off REALLY good. But then every leg of the story becomes less interesting than the previous. The opening to The Augmented Geologist – with the mystery behind this crystal - was great. Ingesting the crystal and gaining powers was also great. But after that, each leg got less and less interesting. He fakes the crystal robbery. He suspects his wife is cheating on him. He tries to find a random dude and pin the fake robbery on him. He runs away from everyone. None of those choices were nearly as interesting as that opening act.