Premise: (Original Twit-Pitch Logline) When a U-Boat vanishes in the 1940s, it leads a team of American GIs to a terrifying secret trapped beneath the ice of Antarctica.
About: For those recently joining Scriptshadow, I held a contest a few months back called "Twit-Pitch," where anyone could pitch me their screenplay on Twitter, as long as it was contained within a single tweet. I picked my 100 favorite loglines and read the first 10 pages of each (which I live-reviewed on Twitter), and then from those, picked the Top 20, which I'll read the entire screenplay for. This is one of the finalists.
Writer: R. Burke Kearney
Details: 98 pages
Oh yeah baby. It’s Tundra time. Tundra is the first Twit-Pitch script I’m reviewing from my “definite” pile. Now as many of you know, when I reviewed the first ten pages of the Twit-Pitch finalists on Twitter, I had three piles. Pass (didn’t make it to the next round). Maybe (I would look at it again later). And Definite (automatically made it to the next round). There were only 7 definites. This was one of them.
Originally I said I was only going to save the best scripts for last but I really wanted to read something good so I moved Tundra to the front of the line. Please Tundra, don’t let me down.
We're somewhere near Antarctica inside a German U-Boat. The year is 1942, which means we're smack dab in the middle of World War 2 when these pesky Germans and their Enigma machines were occupying every centimeter of every ocean and blowing up whatever ship they wanted. If we didn't figure out a way to crack this Enigma code (the way the Germans communicated with each other) soon, it was looking like there'd be a statue of Hitler outside New York instead of a Statue Of Liberty.
Unfortunately, the Germans in this U-boat won't be around to see any statues because their ship is attacked by a mysterious entity, jostled around like a can of coke inside the hands of pissed off juggler, and they all die. Cut to black.
Enter the Marines two weeks later. They've been sent over from the good ole U.S. of A. to grab themselves a FREE Engima machine courtesy of the mysterious water creature that burped that submarine up to the Antarctic surface. The centerpiece of this operation is a soldier named Sam Gavin, who's just come back from a recent court martial which you can bet your ass he refuses to talk about.
When they get to the 10 million square foot skating rink, however, they find that things aren't exactly as they expected (are they ever??). Some guy named Tillman, who's part of a separate operation out in the Antarctic, has lost his entire camp due to some mysterious attack. Tillman's here to guide them, I guess, first to his camp where the massacre occurred, and then to the U-Boat.
The marines aren't too perked about this little side-mission, but they soon learn that the two incidents might be related. Once at the camp, they find a bunch of footprints heading off to the submarine, which we see is sticking ass-up out of the ice about a mile down.
When they finally get to the U-boat, however, they're attacked by a plane. It's the Germans, who've come to get that Enigma machine before the Americans do. A few marines die but it turns out they're the lucky ones. You see, the Germans aren't the only ones out there. An unknown species that looks like a werewolf with a shark head has placed the marines squarely in their sites and plan on killing every one of them.
So to summarize we have marines, Nazis, and werewolf creatures. We have a U-boat, an enigma machine, and also some glowing blue rod that I forgot to mention, that's found inside the U-boat. Not sure what that's all about, but I think Tillman wants it. In fact, Tillman wants more than that. Guy wants to capture a few of these Hunter creatures and take them back to the U.S. to study. And he's willing to kill a marine or five to do it. With all of this chaos, who's going to come out alive? And oh yeah, what the heck did Sam Gavin get court-martialed for?
Tundra started out great. Of course it started out great. That's why I put it on my "definite" pile. But I started getting a little nervous soon after. Something about the dialogue felt off. I don't know many writers who can pull off this "tough guy" marine talk well and I'm not sure Kearney succeeds either. I've said this before but it feels like a writer who's watched a lot of movies with characters who talk like this as opposed to giving the marines their own distinct unique voices.
Too many writers make this mistake. Yeah, you're writing a fun sci-fi horror thriller. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't dig into your characters' backstories and find out what's unique about them so that they can talk and act in a unique way. If you don't do that extra work, you'll fall back on cliches and stereotypes, such as...you guessed it...previous movie characters you've watched. Don't think for a second that the reader doesn't pick up on this. We do. And it's a sad moment, because we know from that point on, the story's going to lack an element of originality.
On the plus side, we jump into the story REALLY FAST. I mean after we meet the marines it's off to Antarctica and the mission begins. However immediately after they get there, I started getting confused. I couldn't figure out who exactly Tillman was or what he had to do with anything. He was the only survivor of this nearby camp? Yet he didn't know what attacked him? Later, when we go to his camp to try and figure things out, they find footprints heading off to the submarine. If Tillman survived this thing, how come he didn't already know everyone else ran to the submarine? Why is he finding this out for the first time with the marines? There were little pieces of information here and there that were kept from us that we needed to know in order to understand Tillman's situation. So his whole storyline was a challenge to keep up with.
After the Germans show up, the story starts to lose form. The goals aren't as clear. The marines split up into two groups. Tillman starts going after the hunters, which is a clear goal, but I'm not sure what Gavin and Decker (another marine) were doing in the U-boat.
As I've always preached on the site, you want to give your characters a clear goal - something they're after. This it the MAIN thing you'll need to do to keep the story focused. If you decide to split your characters up into two (or even three) groups, then, you need to give BOTH GROUPS clear goals. This is super-important because you're now asking the audience to keep track of two separate story lines. If one of those story lines is unclear, then you've failed as a writer because we can't properly follow the story anymore. I could never quite figure out what Gavin was doing in his half of the storyline and that did Tundra in for me.
Finally, I thought the end of the story could've used some original choices. We find out there's a ship under the snow. It's essentially an alien "Noah's Ark," with a bunch of alien animals being let loose. I've seen lots of versions of this before. I've even reviewed a spec detailing this exact same scenario. So I was sort of let down as I wanted something new and different. It's a cool idea. But you have to remember that you're competing against millions of imaginations. If you don't dig deep enough, chances are you're writing something that's already been written.
On the technical front, the script was a quick read. The writing was descriptive and succinct. Formatting was excellent. A couple of typos but nothing terrible. If I were Burke, I would work harder on character backstory and really trying to come up with characters who are unique. Don't just base people off your favorite movie characters. This would clear up some of the dialogue issues I had. In addition to that, challenge yourself more with plot. Dig a couple levels deeper so you erase any chance of writing something unoriginal. Oh, and clarity! Make sure the reader always knows what's going on.
This is stronger than your average amateur effort for sure. But it's not quite up to pro level for the reasons I listed. However, Burke has enough talent to take this feedback and kick ass on his next effort.
Script link: Tundra
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I Learned: Remember that movies primarily stimulate two senses – what you see and what you hear. Therefore, when you’re writing description, you want to focus on images and sounds. Read the first few pages of Tundra and you'll see why I put it in the "definite" pile. The “lazy groaning of steel under pressure.” Or “Icy winds batter white-tipped waves.” “A periscope breaks through.” It points towards the “misty mass of Antarctica.” You want to transport your reader into a world. Focusing on sounds and images is the best way to do that.