Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Screenplay Review - The God Particle

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: In the near future, a large-scale science experiment on an American space station goes haywire, eliminating earth from space.  The occupants of the space station must then deal with a rogue space shuttle that may have nefarious plans for the crew.
About: Writer Oren Uziel is best known for his somewhat wacky premises.  In his breakthrough screenplay, Shimmer Lake, he told his story backwards.  In his next script, Kitchen Sink, he tackled aliens, zombies and vampires.  The God Particle is his first screenplay that takes a grounded approach to a premise, albeit one steeped in science fiction.
Writer: Oren Uzeil
Details: 110 pages

Oren's one of my favorite writers.  You're just never sure what you're going to get when you open one of his scripts.  And you can't say that for a lot of writers.  Oren first came to my attention when he won the Austin Film Festival screenwriting contest with his backwards tale, Shimmer Lake.  It was one of the few times I've seen that gimmick used in a way that actually helped the story, and wasn't just a cheap way to get reads.

But that was a small town hick tale.  This is the future.  In outer space.  And it's the first time Oren's told a grounded story.  The characters aren't layered in sarcasm or broader than a 3 Stooges sketch or steeped in tongue-in-cheek dialogue.  Which means Oren has no "special effects" to fall back on.  He has to tell everything straight-up.  And that's when it gets hard folks - having to create REAL people.  I actually know very few writers who can pull it off consistently.  Does Oren join the club?

The God Particle introduces us to space station "Dandelion," which consists of Ava Hamilton, an engineer and the de facto captain of the station (I think - that's never clear), her boyfriend, Evan, the boyish Miika, the pious "Monk," the shaggy-haired ship screw-up, Mundy, as well as a few others.

This station's been orbiting earth for a few years, which is probably a good thing because earth isn't doing so hot.  There's an escalating war between the U.S. and Europe, with each side sending troops over for a massive offensive.  Not sure what us and Europe would fight over (the metric system maybe?) but apparently things are getting pretty nasty.

The Dandelion was built to house one of those particle accelerator thingys.  A little unclear on the need for one of those puppies up in space (seems kind of expensive doesn't it?) but maybe it has something to do with that one in Sweden breaking down if you so much as sneeze near it.  Well, if you want to talk about a breakdown, let's talk about what happens when Dandelion runs its first particle acceleration experiment.  The goddamn earth disappears!!!  Now that is a fireable offense.

After some really pissed off astronauts regroup, they wonder what the hell they're going to do.    Imagine never being able to go to Chipotle again!   Sooo not okay.  So the station does what orbit-less space stations do best, drift around in nothingness for awhile.  Until - that is - spotting an incoming space shuttle.  But not just any space shuttle - a EUROPEAN space shuttle.  Looks like that century old debate of meters or yards will be solved after all.  Possibly over a game of darts!

After the Europeans convince the stupid Americans to let them board, people start dying.  The first one to go is Hamilton's boyfriend, Evan, who's poisoned.  The problem is, Hamilton's not convinced the Europeans did it.  She thinks it might have been one of her OWN men.  Well by gosh, we just stumbled upon a good old fashioned whodunit, didn't we?

This is followed by a number of twists and surprises, such as the true nature behind the particle accelerator, and pretty soon it looks like no one's coming out of this thing alive.  So Hamilton will have to put her best private detective hat on while keeping both crews from each other's throats, and come up with a solution before humanity as we know it is barbecued.

I don't know if my standards have gone up in recent weeks or the scripts I'm reading have gone down, but I'm having a hard time endorsing screenplays lately.  The God Particle is okay but I'm just not sure it's a big enough idea.  I've read a half a dozen of these "stuck on a space station - try to get back to earth" scripts, so I've pretty much seen it all.  And unfortunately God Particle doesn't introduce anything new to the equation.

Actually, I shouldn't say that.  We do have the "whodunnit" aspect, which bookends a nifty little Act 2 sequence.  But I can watch a whodunnit anywhere.  I'm not sure putting it in space adds anything new to the mix.

Also, there were a few unclear plot points which had a fairly significant effect on the read.  For example, I couldn't figure out if this was some sort of half-ship/half-station or if it was JUST a station.  What confused me is that they kept saying it took them a month to receive signals from earth.  If they're orbiting earth, why would it take a month to receive radio/television signals?  Wouldn't it only take, like, a few minutes?

The reason this is a big deal is because at the end of the first act, the earth disappears.  And I was trying to figure out if the earth was a 2 month trip from where they were or just right next to them.  Cause if it was the former, it would be a lot harder to pinpoint earth, increasing the odds that they'd made a mistake.  The point is - it was unnecessarily confusing!  And you can't have confusion surrounding ANY major plot points.  It's those key points that, if unclear, can confuse the hell out of a reader and make him give up on the story.

Another issue is the darn characters.  There just weren't any that stood out.  Hamilton, the lead (I'm still confused about whether she was the engineer or the captain or both) was about as bland as it gets, which is strange, since Oren's written such interesting characters in the past.  There just didn't seem to be any conflict going on inside of her, or outside of her for that matter.  Even when her lover was killed early on, she seemed indifferent to it, which was bizarre.

And then we had Monk, the religious character, who was about as on-the-nose as a freckle.  He's a religious character who's...religious!  He just talks about God the whole time.  There's no new angle there, nothing to grab onto or surprise you.  When you're writing "stereotype" characters, particularly ones with strong ideologies, like religious characters, I always advise adding irony to spice them up!  For example, maybe Monk's a religious man who's addicted to a drug or extremely violent or even swears all the time!  You know what I mean?  Just give me something so it's not so obvious and on-the-nose.

And this issue reared its ugly head in all the characters, none of whom had that necessary trait to make them stand out from the pack (or from previous movies).  And obviously, if the characters are boring, the plot doesn't matter.  Who cares how cool a plot is if we don't care about the people in it?

And the unfortunate thing here was, the plot had its moments.  One of my favorite parts (spoiler) was when the Europeans turned out to be military and had successfully tricked the Americans (who they'd always planned on killing).  It was a plot twist with all sorts of potential but, again, because the characters were so bland, we just didn't care that much.

God Particle is well-written but lacks all those exceptional amenities that make a script stand out.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] not for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I Learned: You need at least one character in your sci-fi script (and really any script) who's just really fucking unique.  They have to be different from any character you've seen before, or else what's the point?  Look at Riddick from Pitch Black.  He's blind.  He's a murderer.  But he's also a hero.  Look at his adversary, Johns.  He's a bounty hunter who's addicted to drugs.  He's more morally bankrupt than Riddick himself.  You gotta push yourself in this area because if you just create a bunch of "normal" characters and no one stands out, you're going to have, at best, an average script.