Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Screenplay Review - Agent Ox

Today's screenplay tackles that age-old screenwriting question: How does an alien spy save planet earth?

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: Behind the scenes of a modern day earth, the leaders of the world learn that a faraway civilization is planning to wipe them out. So they send in a spy – one of the aliens who came to warn them – to extract information about the attack in order to defend against it.
About: This script sold at the end of last year in a minor bidding war that Sony won, paying $300,000. Nice! The writer, Daniel Kunka, has one produced credit to his name, the John Cena vehicle, 12 rounds, a 2009 film about a detective who must complete 12 challenges to save his kidnapped girlfriend.
Writer: Daniel Kunka
Details: 119 pages – March 3, 2011 draft (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).

Hey, it may not be the bidding wars of the 90s, but grabbing $300,000 for a spec script is pretty darn sweet (correction - a commenter points out that this sold for much more than 300k.  300k is the amount Neal Moritz, the producer on the deal, personally paid in addition to the studio, to close the deal). And WHY did this particular spec script sell? Especially when it’s “just another alien invasion movie” (as some people have pointed out)?

Well, that’s the thing. It’s not just another alien invasion movie. We’re not talking Battle: Los Angeles here, where the only thing alien is the plot. This is an alien invasion movie about a spy who flies to another planet to save earth. Now I can’t definitively say that that’s why it sold, but I can tell you it’s THESE KIND OF UNIQUE ANGLES that set your script apart from every other spec out there. Go ahead, write your alien invasion flick. But just know that there are hundreds if not thousands of writers doing the same thing. So if you can find an angle that’s different, like Agent Ox, you may find yourself jumping up a few tax brackets.

That said, all that scribbling still has to dance. Just because the outfit’s original doesn’t mean you should wear it to the club. So does Agent Ox tear it up? Or fall on its ass?

Agent Ox is ambitious. It starts out by telling us everything we know is a lie. Remember that purported alien crash back in Roswell in the 40s? It turns out that really WAS an alien crash. Or, more specifically, an FUI’ing “Oxialitian,” who’d come to earth to warn us that in about 70 years, his people were going to come here and rape the earth of all of its energy, killing us all in the process.

As time went by, more Oxialitians (who look similar to humans in most respects) came, giving the leaders of the world secrets about their technology, enabling them to build an entire series of underground weaponry, the kind of stuff that makes nuclear missiles look like IEDs. The bulk of this technology was used for an immense super-cannon that would be placed on the far side of the moon, awaiting the arrival of the Oxialitians.

Since you don’t want to tell the entire human race that there’s a good chance they’ll be wiped out (I find that sort of thing never goes well), this development was all done on the sly. Only people in the highest positions of government knew about it.

And still, that isn’t enough. They need intel. They need someone on the inside. So a 20-something Oxialitian named Tim is asked to participate in the most ambitious mission in earth’s history. Go to the Oxialitian’s planet, secretly infiltrate their government, and keep Earth abreast of any new developments in their plan.

And that’s what the main storyline’s about. It’s the present day (on Earth at least) and Tim is living on this alien planet (which is about 100 years more advanced than ours), working for their government and quietly sending back intel to earth.

None of this is easy of course. Tim ends up falling for and living with another Oxialitian while there. And, as you would expect, the government begins to suspect that one of their own is a spy – although not necessarily Tim. This is terrible timing, as the Oxialitians decide to move on Earth sooner than expected. So Tim needs to be able to get that intel back to Earth ASAP but because everyone’s being watched so closely, it will be near impossible. As the attack nears and Tim keeps moving higher on the suspect list, he will have to pull off a miracle to save mankind.

This script was so unlike anything I’d read before that I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I mean it’s just kind of “out there,” and yet it’s all handled with just enough skill to keep you reading. Or at least keep sci-fi geeks like myself reading.

What’s funny is that I don’t like the spy genre. We just established this last week. But the second you put an alien spin on it, I’m interested. And actually, even though this takes place in a completely imaginary universe, it nailed every single structural component that previous abomination of a spy spec (Wencesles Square) did not. We have a goal (Find out when/where the attack will take place). We have stakes (if he screws up, the earth is destroyed) and we have urgency (there’s only a few days left before they attack). So from a structural standpoint, Agent Ox got everything right.

Where it starts to get a little wobbly though is in the characters and their relationships. This is EXTREMELY common in the sci-fi scripts I read, as writers interested in science fiction generally aren’t interested in the human component. So you get these murky characters, murky character flaws, and relationships that don’t have a lot going on in them.

Exhibition A – Tim. I knew nothing about him. Here this guy is, going off to this alien planet to be a spy, and I never got a sense of what he thought of this. I’m not even sure why he goes. He just seems to do it because people want him to. What’s his motivation?

And what’s his flaw? What’s holding him back in life? What is it from his past that he’s trying to resolve? What are his dreams/aspirations? His life goals? These are the things that tell us who characters are, that expand them beyond a two-dimensional piece of paper. Yet none of them were addressed save for maybe the backstory, which leaned on the cliché “father was a drunk” crutch that invariably indicates the writer either doesn’t know how to create an interesting backstory or is too lazy to come up with something original.

And if you have a murky character, it’s almost impossible to create a compelling relationship. The whole reason relationships are interesting is because they challenge who a character is, what they believe in, what they want, what their flaws are. If we don’t know any of these things, then you’re stuck doing something murky and generic with the relationship. The extent of Tim’s relationship with his girlfriend is that she’s a little concerned because he’s been distant lately. That’s not enough to carry an entire movie. Say what you will about Avatar but the relationship there was actually about something. He was ignorant. He didn’t care about anything beyond himself. She had to teach him how to appreciate and care about his surroundings.

So that was disappointing.

Still, because the structure was so solid and the stakes were so high, it kept you reading. There were also some cool inventive sci-fi things that were worth nerding out over. Watching this huge alien ring suck the cover off an alien planet was both awesome and terrifying. And I loved the idea of aliens cleaning themselves on a molecular level. A device literally turns you into trillions of molecules so it can clean your insides. I’d never read anything like that before. And I liked how Kunka worked that into a key plot point as well.

So could this be a good movie? That’s tough to say. The great thing about an original idea is that it gets industry attention. The bad thing about an original idea is that those same industry people are afraid to pull the trigger. Anything that hasn’t been done before is a gamble and an earth spy on an alien planet hasn’t been done before. So we’ll have to see what happens. I didn’t love Agent Ox, but I liked it enough to recommend to other sci-fi geeks.

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

What I learned: One of the most compelling situations you can create in a movie is giving your hero two WRONG CHOICES. Think about it. Give a character an easy choice and there’s no drama. But give them two “wrong” choices and now things get interesting. (Spoiler) Late in the script, Tim’s girlfriend is misidentified as the traitor, which means she’ll be killed. So Tim has a choice – tell the truth, that he’s the real traitor, saving his girlfriend, or let his girlfriend die in order to save earth. No matter which one he chooses, the consequences are staggering. (note: They would’ve been a LOT more staggering though, had the relationship and characters, particularly the girlfriend, been better established – Just having a tough choice in theory isn’t good enough. We have to care about the people involved).