Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bright Angel Falling

Genre: Sci-fi
Premise: A civilization ending comet is on a collision course with Earth.
About: Back before Armageddon and Deep Impact, James Cameron (along with Peter Hyams) was angling to get his own asteroid/comet disaster flick into theaters. For whatever reason, his script was ignored in favor of Dreamworks’ and Disney’s own versions. Or was it?
Writer: Peter Hyams and James Cameron
Details: 136 pages (undated draft)

In case I haven’t made it clear, I’m head over heels in fan love with James Cameron. The man has proven time and time again that he’s the King of Blockbusters. While I understand the Titanic backlash, particularly in response to the film’s dialogue, I’ll repeat what every good writer knows: It isn’t the dialogue that’s difficult to get right, it’s the structure. And the structure underneath the Titanic screenplay is so solid not even the biggest iceberg in the world could sink it. It’s hard enough to keep someone’s interest for 90 minutes. Cameron kept you biting your nails for twice that. Even the man’s less successful films, The Abyss and True Lies, are better than 95% of the summer movies you see today (the director’s cut of The Abyss is particularly trippy if you ever get a chance to see it).

But I have to say, this whole 3-D thing isn’t for me. I’ve gotten into some fights with friends over this but I can’t imagine any scenario where putting bulky 3-D glasses on every time you go to the theater is the norm. That doesn’t mean I won’t give Avatar a chance. On the contrary, Avatar is probably the one movie I *will* see in 3-D. If anyone’s going to do this right, it will be the creator of Terminator and Aliens. But what bothers me about the movement is that it’s not so much consumer driver (us demanding it) as industry driven (them pushing it on us). Hollywood clearly needs something to differentiate itself from the ever-improving home theater experience. 3-D is the only thing they’ve come up with. So they have, and will, throw every dollar they have into convincing us it’s the future. And that’s the problem. Is that’s exactly how it feels. A desperate attempt to keep us going to movies. I, however, come from the old school. You know, that school that says, “Write better scripts.” Studio heads may laugh at me when I mention such a silly idea, but I honestly think that’s the key. Look at Pixar if you don’t believe me. They put so much emphasis on the script and look at their track record.

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. Back in the days when you could find a pair of 3-D glasses in the current month’s issue of MAD magazine, Cameron and Peter Hyams (writer-director of 2010) wrote a comet heading towards earth flick called, “Bright Angel Falling”. For you under-ten year olds, 1998 was the year of two asteroid-earth collision movies, the Steven Spielberg produced “Deep Impact” and the Michael Bay directed “Armageddon.” Both these films came out within a FEW MONTHS OF EACH OTHER. If that doesn’t tell you how fucked up Hollywood is, I don’t know what does. Both movies brought on a large amount of writers. Armageddon in particular had, what some people believed, was the most writers ever to have worked on a single project. We’re talking tens of millions of dollars were spent on that screenplay. And my question today is: why? Why did both productions spend so much money on writing when they basically took James Cameron’s screenplay and switched out the title page?

I suppose there are differences here but man, not many. Bright Angel Falling centers on Will Seacord, a divorced astronaut who's up in space so much he can probably name all the satellites on site. As a result, he doesn't see much of his 15 year old rebellious daughter, Claire. Work’s given him an excuse for that. So when he’s told he’ll no longer be a part of NASA’s number 1 flight crew anymore, the reality of a life post-NASA, a life where he’ll have to face his failures as a parent, have him reevaluating everything.

Around this time, a young astronomer (the female Asian version of Elijah Wood) spots the comet that’s going to turn our planet plural. The president is notified and pretty soon the whole world is aware that human extinction is 3 months away. But the prez isn’t going down without a fight. The United States government puts their best minds together to come up with a solution but the truth is there’s nothing that can be done in such a short amount of time. That is until a couple of Berkely students stumble in with an old thesis paper they think is the answer to earth’s problems. What if they strategically place two bombs on the comet and detonate them simultaneously to knock the comet off its trajectory so it will miss earth? (Does any of this sound familiar?)

A crew is readied, people prepare, and in a scene reminiscent of the terrorist attack in Contact, the captain of the crew is killed by some religious freak. What do you know? Seacord is once again in command of the shuttle. There's some training stuff with the rest of the crew but to be honest, it wasn't very interesting. One touch I did like (which is funny, because it’s one that neither movie chose to use) requires them to use two 50 megaton nukes. And there are only two of these bombs in the world. Both of them reside in Russia (this would be China if the script were written today). Because Russia refuses to just hand over two of their biggest nukes to the U.S., they give them on the condition that two Russians accompany the bombs, each one containing the codes to activate them, which they will do once the bombs are in place on the comet. The reason I liked this so much was because I have a feeling this is exactly what would happen if our world was threatened by something. Politics would take precedence over saving mankind. It also serves a great dramatic purpose, since you know those Russians aren’t going to be around when the actual codes need to be entered.

Anyway, back on earth, fragments from the comet start hitting early (I told you it was similar). And in one of the coolest described destruction sequences I’ve ever read, Cameron and Hyams detail one of these black-out-the-sky-it’s-so-big chunks hitting the ocean at “a thousand times the speed of a bullet”, resulting in a colossal tsunami wave that shoots off in every direction. I want you to stop and imagine something as big as, say, 50 city blocks, shooting towards the earth 1000 times faster than a bullet. Imagine what that would look like. I honestly felt like I was in the theater watching this during the description. It was that cool.

But once the astronauts are in the air, I'm afraid I felt like I was back watching Ben Affleck run animal crackers up girls’ bellies, because it really is sequence after sequence from Armageddon. From the Mir hookup gone wrong to the slingshotting around the moon (although it's way cooler in Cameron’s version) to Seacord locking his co-astronaut in the shuttle so that he can detonate the bomb manually. It sucks because it takes away from an otherwise cool reading experience. I’m guessing with all the similarities that Disney must’ve bought this screenplay, right? Can anyone confirm this?

As for the script itself, it’s probably not something you guys should emulate. Cameron and Hyams write in big intimidating chunks, sometimes 15 lines long, going into the minute details of the science behind the operation. Cameron’s obviously obsessed with this stuff and since he probably entertained directing the project himself at some point, he may have been writing these things more for his own reference than the readers.

In the end, I think it’s worth the read because Cameron basically does everything they did in those movies, but better. The amount of research this man incorporates into his projects is astounding and boy does it help sell the idea. When he tells us, “It takes 30 thousand people to get a shuttle ready for launch. 6 million parts need to be checked,” we understand the scope in a way that we never did in Deep Impact or Armageddon. It would be an interesting exercise to read the script then watch those two movies, just to see how Cameron’s version compares side by side. I have a general sense. But I haven’t seen either film since the summer they came out so I don't remember everything.

Maybe the biggest compliment I can pay James Cameron is that if there was a comet heading towards earth, I’d want him on the team assigned to stop it. If you’re a Cameron fan, you should definitely give this a read.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I know I just praised Cameron’s attention to detail, but there are times when he gets a little carried away. It’s one thing to explain how the shuttle is going to land on the comet. It’s another to get into the different kinds of compounds needed to create the fuel that will get them there. Know when enough is enough. Story is always most important. If you’re slowing everything down so you can explain the minute details of something that we only need the bare essentials of, take a step back and determine which information is really necessary and cut out the rest. Nobody’s going to be as patient with you as they are with a James Cameron script.