Monday, August 27, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Zero Theorem

Genre: Sci-Fi/Drama
Premise: A terminally ill data cruncher is tasked with crunching the company's most unsolvable job, the mysterious Zero Theorem.
About: If there's ever been such a thing as a dream geek pairing, Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys) and Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Bastards) would be somewhere in the top 10 (okay, let's face it, Terry Gilliam and any actor would be in the top 10).  Right now, The Zero Theorem is in pre-production.  Gilliam has been trying to get this movie going for awhile, with Billy Bob Thorton attached at one point.  This will be writer Pat Rushin's first produced credit.  He was an English professor at the University Of Central Florida and has had his work published in a number of magazines and newspapers.
Writer: Pat Rushin
Details: 95 pages

The more I read, the clearer this whole "voice" thing becomes to me.  Let me explain.  Almost all the scripts I read follow the same exact pattern, make the same exact choices, have the same exact sense of humor, have surprisingly similar dialogue.  There's nothing in the script that stands out as unique.  And when there isn't a single unique thing about your script, how do you expect it to stand out?  Why would you expect anyone to remember your screenplay an hour after they've finished it?

This is why "voice" is so important.  If you can do anything differently - if you have a part of your writing that only YOU can add - people are going to remember you.

That's the feeling I got right away when reading The Zero Theorem.  It was unlike any script I've read in awhile.  It's sort of 13 Monkeys by way of Midnight Cowboy with a splash of Eternal Sunshine with a sprinkle of The Matrix? Original enough for you?  We're introduced to a strange man named Qohen Leth, a 40-something gaunt hairless fellow, presumably in the near future, working for an obscure data-crunching company.

Qohen is one weird dude.  He's tired, distant, and hates to be touched.  He also thinks he's dying.  And the only thing he cares about is a big call he assumes he'll be getting soon which will tell him what he needs to do with his life.  See that's the thing.  Above and beyond everything, Qohen feels like he doesn't have a purpose.  And that whoever's calling him will finally give him that purpose.

So Qohen applies for a medical exception which will allow him to work from home so he can be around at all times just in case that call comes.  He gets the exception, but on one condition - that he tackle the biggest number-crunching job the company's ever had - The Zero Theorem.  Nobody's been able to figure out The Zero Theorem.  No matter how many times they've tried to crunch the numbers, they won't stay crunched.  Qohen is their last shot.

The kicker?  If he solves Zero Theorem, management will make sure Qohen gets his phone call.  That's one of the weird things about this script.  We're existing in this slightly "off" universe where the boss at a company can make sure a Fate phone call can get to one of his workers.  I'm not sure how Rushin pulled this off, but it somehow makes sense.

Anyway, Qohen soon finds The Zero Theorem to be as impossible as it's hyped to be.  The numbers just don't work.  When he complains to management, "Management" sends his 15 year old boy genius son, Bob, to help him.  Bob is as eccentric as Qohen is bizarre.  For example, he calls everyone else "Bob" so he doesn't have to waste brain space on remembering new names.

Qohen and Bob develop a unique friendship and together find out what The Zero Theorem reveals - the meaning of life!  Yeah, that's a pretty big deal - and it's something Qohen in particular wants to find out, especially because he's been stuck in this paralyzed state ever since his wife and son died in a fire.  He craves meaning.  He needs a reason to go on.  So Qohen and Bob give the theorem everything they've got.  Will they solve it, especially once they learn management is working against them??

A main character who refers to himself as "We."  A 15 year old boy on life-support who refers to everyone by his own name, Bob.  A buxom blonde infatuated with virtual reality.  A manager who never shows his face in public.  Heck, this script had me when it introduced a rapping virtual psychiatrist on CD-ROM.  There was nothing about this script that was ordinary.  I had NO idea where it was going.

A lot of times, that can end up in disaster.  If you get too random, your story falls off the rails.  But this script managed to stay random yet still incorporate a clear story with a clear goal (Figure out Zero Theorem so Qohen can get his phone call).  Cool!

I think that's what really stuck out to me here - that the script managed to feel so different yet incorporate a lot of the most basic storytelling tools.  Take, for example, the creation of a sympathetic character.  Qohen is lonely.  He's an outsider.  He doesn't relate to anyone.  Characters like these are really easy for an audience to sympathize with.  People naturally root for lonely people, people who are misunderstood.  From Edward Scissorhands to Elliot in E.T.

On top of that, Qohen lost his family in a tragic fire.  It's something that's completely destroyed him emotionally.  Again, people will ALWAYS root for characters who have experienced personal loss.  So we're rooting for this guy HARDCORE from the get-go.

And I just liked the contrast and conflict within the script.  I loved how Qohen was just about the most anti-social creature in the universe, and we pair him up with a love interest who's the most outgoing person in the universe, the buxom force of nature, Bainsley.  It's decisions like these (a pairing similar to Eternal Sunshine) that ensure tons of conflict between the characters, which results in the dialogue writing itself (whenever someone says, "The dialogue practically writes itself," that usually happens because the conflict in the scene makes the dialogue really fun/easy to write).

Now the ending of the script starts to get a little wacky and hard to follow, not unlike Friday's amateur effort, where there were simply too many variables to keep track of.  So if the story has a weakness, that's probably it.  I've found that whenever you promise an answer akin to the meaning of life in your script, you're usually not going to deliver, so it was a dangerous route for Rushin to take in the first place.  But outside of that ending (which was still pretty solid), this weird little story had me digitally dancing through the pages.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn't for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: If you do not have a distinct voice - and not every writer does - the only thing you have is your ability to tell a great story.  I look at a movie like Contact as a good example.  I don't sense an original voice when I read that script, but the story is extremely well told.  That said, you should always be looking to see what makes you original as a writer and try and highlight that in your writing.  If you don't have anything unique about yourself that stands out, it can be a tough road getting discovered.