Sunday, September 27, 2009

Shadow 19

Hard science fiction is one of the biggest gambles you can take as a writer. It's easy to assume that everyone will wait patiently while you explain the setting, the time period, the sides, the politics, the alien races, and everything else they need to know to understand your universe. But the reality is, the information is probably so overwhelming that they've checked out before you've made it to the second act. I love hard sci-fi as much as the next nerd but if you're spending a majority of your screenplay telling us that The Hawfner Alliance is about to annihilate the Crimson Factor and that General Eekou, of the half-alien half-human sub-race, the Qualars, is hoping to halt it with the Leviathan Treaty, which he just found in the Baristone constellation, let me let you in on a little secret: Your reader isn't reading anymore. That's not to say hard sci-fi can't be done, just that it requires a very skilled writer. On a spec, you're much better off following James Cameron's lead, who created the best action sci-fi film of all time. There are aliens. Marines are going to kill them. That's your movie. Speaking of the Alien franchise, Roger Balfour wants to know whether it's in good hands. So he's reviewing a script from Jon Spaihts, the man tapped to reboot/remake/prequelize Alien.

Genre: Science Fiction, Action-Adventure, Horror
Premise: Captain Conrad Vance, of the Offworld Marine Corps, is selected by the Special Science Agency to travel to a hostile planet to repair a super-intelligent machine.
About: Twentieth Century Fox hired Jon Spaihts to pen the Alien prequel for director, Ridley Scott. Why? What the hell did this dude pitch to Scott and the studio? And based upon his outer space thrillers, Passengers and Shadow 19, is this the right man for the job? Shadow 19 was originally purchased by Warner Brothers some years back with Keanu in mind to star. But that project fell apart and Keanu tapped Spaihts to write his Isolation space opera idea, Passengers (not the one in my Top 25 but a script that is very highly praised). That's still a possibility but it's looking like Shadow 19 may be dead. I do like the first half of the title though.
Writer: Jon Spaihts

This script had me at man in mechanized death suit. Ever since Ripley fought the Queen femme contre femme in the power loader in James Cameron’s Aliens, I’ve been hooked on stories that have moments where humans climb into armored exoskeletons and become war machines. From the tortured kids in Neon Genesis Evangelion to Wikus van der Merwe in District 9, there’s something cathartic about watching a protagonist go all giant robot and fuck shit up, Stark-style. So it was a stroke of brilliance for Jon Spaihts to introduce the hero of Shadow 19, Captain Conrad Vance of the Offworld Marine Corp, on page 1 of the script already suited up in his Heinlesque armored space suit.

There’s no fucking around here. He’s not climbing into the armored power suit. He’s already inside. He already looks like a superhero, in his half-ton war machine, holding his cannon-sized rifle. He’s aboard a battleship that’s approaching Dione, one of Saturn’s moons. A Colonel tells Vance and eleven other marines that they are the only defense the Dione Colony has against the Hegemony. The situation in our world is this: The Earth is split into two factions, The Allied States and The Hegemony. Overpopulation has stretched the world’s resources to the point where the supply of basic necessities like food and water cannot keep up with the demand. The growth rate of humanity has rendered our world unsustainable. Half of the Allied States’ federal budget is classified and the existence of these “black funds” has come under serious scrutiny by world leaders.

As they say, shit done got rough.

In a riveting sequence that makes both the D-Day assault into Normandy and cinema vérité seem inconsequential, Vance and his squad are ejected into space via drop capsules and they rocket towards the surface of Dione, through the cross-fire of four, three-story high D-Class Tanks and salvos of missiles from their battleship. They crash land, hop out of the impact-craters, and engage the tanks. And it’s fucking awesome. We really get a taste of how cool these suits are, and we meet the OS of Vance’s suit, Athena. She’s so user-friendly she could almost be sentient. But things get hairy and marines start to die when a moving fortress designated the Colossus arrives over the ridge.

And in a battle that made me cum in my pants, Vance takes the offensive. He rips a turret off the thing, enters the Colossus, and starts to kill every living thing inside like a goddamn bull in a China shop. Of course, the look on all of the officer’s faces is pretty fucking priceless when Vance uses his jump-jets to blast through a ladder-well, collide into the ceiling of the bridge, fall, land, and proceed to slaughter the Hegemony scum ED-209 style. Kudos to you, Mr. Spaihts. I never had multiple orgasms while reading the first ten pages of a screenplay until Shadow 19 (and I’ve read a lot of scripts).

If we didn’t know it already, we learn that Vance has survived more missions than any other marine in the Offworld Marine Corps. It’s sort of a big deal, because there’s one-hundred thousand of these guys. He has the fastest reflexes, the lowest resting pulse rate.

He’s the man that always comes home.

After his victory, the battleship receives orders to return Vance back to earth. Why would it (what accounts to be a military aircraft carrier) be diverted for just one man? The State Science Agency needs Vance for special duty. He’s whisked to New Washington where he signs a writ of secrecy, where the penalty for violation of said secrecy is execution. This is some heavy shit. He’s deposited in the Science Agency’s underground complex, where he is introduced to the Scientists. The Scientists are cyberpunk company men (The Stars My Destination. Check.) whose influence may even jeopardize the power of the traditional-nation state (Neuromancer. Check. Dune. Check.)

They are organized by rank. Novices. Apprentices. Masters.

A Master-level Scientist surgically receives a cybernetic crown. This level-up is called the coronation. Scientists who have been coronated absorb information faster, calculate faster, and have total recall. Most importantly, they can control the Agency’s devices by mere thought alone, sort of turning them into cyberpunk wizards who can telekinetically control the tech they build. Receiving your crown is a Devil’s bargain. The Agency owns you and always knows where you are. Treason against the Agency once you have your crown is the equivalent of instant execution.

Director Marbeck, the top Master of the Science Agency, has taken it upon himself to search the heavens for another world, with the intention of safeguarding humanity’s future. He’s spent all of his career spearheading the construction of Prometheus, a massive ship and the greatest secret ever kept (construction period took 30 years and was concealed on an orbital path around Jupiter). Marbeck has gone to extraordinary (and possibly murderous) measures to keep this baby a secret, as the identity and whereabouts of the men and women that comprised the construction crew are classified.

Prometheus is basically a super-intelligent terraforming machine designed to transform a planet twenty-light years away, named Erix, into a new Earth. Once Prometheus landed on Erix, it divided into six mobile sections called Crawlers. These Crawlers spread over the surface of the planet, sowing the seeds to make this alien planet habitable. The problem is, one of these Crawlers has broken down.

Prometheus’ main spire also contains one-half of a device called The Lang Transporter.

Vance’s mission is to travel to Erix instantaneously by Lang Transporter (very important, I’ll get to this in a second), trek one-hundred kilometers to the Crawler, and repair it. Sounds simple, right? Not at all. Erix is richer in heavy elements than Earth. Tungsten, chromium, titanium. Living things on Erix incorporate these metals into their physiognomy, and on a planet with twice the background radiation than on Earth, we essentially have a celestial body whose flora and fauna is the equivalent of military hardware (a detail that perhaps piqued Ridley Scott’s interest). Alien, metallic, nightmarish demons. But doesn’t Vance have a bad-ass battle-suit?

Doesn’t stop him from being killed within seconds of reaching Erix.

Yeah, Vance dies after he is teleported from the Lang Transporter Earth-side to the Lang Transporter Erix-side. It’s scary shit. But wait, how do you have a feature-length script where the protagonist dies on page 38? I’ll tell you. The Lang Transporter is not really a teleportation device. It creates copies. When Vance walks into the Lang chamber, it creates a copy of him on Erix. Bottom line: The Lang Transporter allows Vance to stand on earth and cast his shadow on another world. Which is going to be useful because problem-solving and strategizing a way to make it to the Crawler might take a shit-load of extra lives to figure out. Vance might as well be fighting his way through Hell and all of its armies to accomplish his mission. Now, I’ve summarized this plot point, but experiencing how it unfolds is one of the many joys of this screenplay.

The 2nd act is devoted to Vance, the military strategist, cracking the riddle of surviving on Erix. He develops an intimate relationship with an Apprentice, Ada. Their relationship jeopardizes their sense of identity and loyalty (corporate and personal) to their different employers. Vance is a military man. Ada is a Scientist. She feels guilty that the Agency is basically using Vance as a lab-rat Theseus, and Vance empathizes with Ada’s doubts concerning her career path, her inevitable sacrifice and coronation to the Agency. If there’s a weakness in the script, perhaps it’s the repetitive nature of the scenes. Trying to dramatize the scientific method is a hard gamble. But the drama is compelling, nonetheless. Vance’s adventures and deaths on the hostile planet are wisely kept to short, nightmarish glimpses (wisely focusing on Vance’s story Earth-side). Each segment is enough to whet your appetite, but leave you wanting more more more.

There’s a sequence where Vance demands access to all the cutting edge armor and weapons technology available on Earth. Top-secret experimental weapons of war that he’s ultimately allowed to take with him to Erix. Rail guns, antimatter grenade launchers, massive machetes and the best, shiniest battle-suit executive clearance can get you. It’s a giddy moment, and if you’ve ever been on drunk on a first-person shooter, then you’ll grin like an idiot while you read this.

Stakes are raised when a Scientist is jettisoned by Director Marbeck for discovering information that may or may not pertain to an intelligent civilization that exists on Erix. Not only is this character jettisoned, he may have been executed for his discovery. A Senator challenges Marbeck and demands to know what all this secret spending is being poured into. And with the disappearance of the Scientist, Ada is chosen as his replacement. Her coronation is to commence, against her will.

The 3rd act of this script is probably genius. The jury is still out. I’m still too busy fanboyin’ the fuck out about it. If it’s ever filmed (if a studio won’t fund it, maybe Bill Gates will, they can use Peter Jackson’s line producer), this is the kind of movie that Starcraft-playing Koreans who have been up for 72 hours straight at the local net-cafe and are only awake because of stimulants will have heart-attacks over once in the theatre. It’s a riveting resolution that intercuts between Shadow 19’s adventure on Erix and Vance’s conflict on Earth.

When the iris fully opens on Erix, it’s an action-adventure enthusiast’s wet dream. There are moments of sheer terror and sadness that had me glued to the script even though I had been up for over 20 hours. As Shadow 19 ignores Athena’s advice (which he has programmed to mimic Ada’s voice, a touching detail) and injects himself with stimulants to stay alive, I felt how weary, how desperate Vance’s copy was as he single-handedly destroys most of a planet with his personalized weapons-of-mass destruction and his burning need to accomplish his mission. It’s Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Peter Jackson caliber story-telling that does not disappoint. The Earth conflict is just as desperate and emotional as Vance tries to save Ada from her coronation. And when both worlds collide, it’s the type of splendid screenplay moment that’s both cerebral and visceral.

This script deftly uses the language found in videogames to punctuate the story-telling elements. Something we’ve seen before in Danny Boyle’s The Beach (with mixed results, although it works in Garland’s novel) and will see again in Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim. It’s an idiom that’s hard to avoid in an age where the gaming industry competes with the movie industry and publishing industry for dominance over the market of story. It’s part of our perspective, our shorthand, our inside jokes. And if you agree with Drew McWeeny over at HitFix, videogame stories will never be as good in the cinematic medium as they are in their medium of origin. But can cinematic stories that use conventions found in videogames be successful? If Shadow 19 is any indication, then yes, they can be.

Shadow 19 is a gunmetal paean to id Software and cyberpunk. A hymn to boys (and girls, are you out there?) who spent many a night playing Doom, or any videogame, really, and you were so engrossed in the virtual world the next time you looked out the window it was already dawn. It is a love letter to fans of smart and ambitious science fiction. Not sci-fi. Yes, I say “sci-fi” pejoratively, because to use the parlance of Harlan Ellison, there is a difference. And it is a felony against all people who care about story to not know the difference.

This is science fiction done right. And I dare say it...I dare say it. The Alien prequel is in good hands. If Ridley Scott is willing to believe, then so am I.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?

[ ] barely kept my interest

[ ] worth the read

[x] impressive

[ ] genius

What I Learned: Don’t sacrifice story for scene. If you do, chances are that’s the point where your script derailed. I’ve read enough scripts where the writers blow their wad in the first 10 pages, or in a single scene that not only sacrifices story for scene, but also spectacle. If Spaihts had chosen to show us too much of the Shadows doing battle on Erix early on, he would have run out of steam by the 3rd act. He would have focused on the wrong elements. Spielberg didn’t reveal Jaws until sixty minutes into the movie; Cameron didn’t reveal the Alien hive until sixty or so pages into the script. Follow their lead. Like Spaihts, you might create an atmosphere of sustained suspense so tangible it threatens to suffocate you before you reach the end.