Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Alchemy Papers

I'll be reviewing the script for a very soon-to-be-released Matt Damon film on Tuesday. Very very soon-to-be-released. I'll also be reviewing a script from a couple of guys who have written and directed two of my favorite comedies of all time. Then on Friday I'll be reviewing a hell of a good script that totally surprised me. It was on this year's Black List, but pretty far down, and because of a certain actor's attachment, I wasn't expecting much at all. But man, this script has one of the greatest villains I've read in a long long time. They cast it right and whoever plays that part has a shot at an Oscar. Wednesday is still a mystery at this moment. But hopefully we'll have something interesting to put up. Here's Roger with his review of "The Alchemy Papers."

Genre: Family Adventure
Premise: When Thomas Edison's great-great grandson accidentally uncovers the first clue to where the infamous Alchemy Papers are hidden, which contains the formula to make gold, he sets off on a high-stakes adventure throughout the Five Boroughs of New York City.
About: Sold to Kopelson Entertainment in 2007. Before that, the brother and sister duo sold an untitled project to Beacon. Adele Griffin is the author of numerous YA books, two of which (Where I Want to Be and Sons of Liberty) were finalists for the National Book Award. Her and her brother Geoff, screenplay-wise, cut their teeth on "a supernatural thriller, then a sudsy coming-of-age script, a cool but bleak noir script, and then a comedy that got us some attention but didn't sell."
Writers: Geoff Watson & Adele Griffin
Details: March 2006 draft

The Edison name doesn't carry the same kind of clout it used to.
Just ask seventh-grader, Tom Edison. He's the great-great grandson of the famed scientist and inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, and he's in danger of losing his scholarship at St. Anthony's Academy because his inventions (think remote control lawnmowers and self-stacking cafeteria dishwashers) go haywire and destroy school property and endanger students.
He most definitely comes from the same DNA as his scatter-brained father, Thomas Sr., who is more concerned with selling that miracle patent (for his Robot Nanny) that will put the Edison family back on the map than with finding, say, an actual job.
When Tom Jr. finds a 1925 Barnak Leica A 35mm camera in his family's basement, he discovers a roll of well-preserved 35mm acetate film. Because he's an Edison, or "geek encoded", he can throw together the appropriate chemicals for developing the film based on household items off the top of his head.
So what's he discover on the film?
It's a picture of one of his great-great grandfather's best friends, Louis Lumière, the inventor of the movie projector (without whom there might not even exist screenplays or a ScriptShadow!).
So that's pretty cool, but so is the book Lumière holds, Le Triomphe Alchimie.
Tom also notices that Lumière is wearing an emerald pendant, just like the one he has on now.
It's the symbol of the Frater Scientiae, a group of distinguished artists and thinkers that includes such notable figures as: Mark Twain, Mary Cassatt and Henry Ford.
It's a group that forms when Thomas Edison discovers how to make gold out of any metal. Scared of his discovery and not wanting it to get into the wrong hands, he hid these alchemy papers, whereabouts unknown.
But not without him and the Frater Scientiae scattering clues throughout New York City and its landmarks, creating a riddle for that specific individual who is truly worthy of unearthing Edison's secret.
Which is Tom, right? So who are his friends that help him on his journey?
There's Bean, who aspires to be the next American Idol, and uses his gift of song to distract and otherwise get his friends out of hairy situations, and then there's Colby.
Colby is a thirteen-year old tomboy, and her grandfather was an engineer who supposedly helped build much of Manhattan. He has tons of books on New York and its landmarks.
When the kids follow some clues and discover the former location of The Pioneer Inn, "an Artist-only boarding house, where Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, and Mark Twain once lodged", we discover they are being watched by a thug named Vlad who works for Alset Technologies, the company Thomas Sr. has been laid off from.
Alset Technologies? Why does that seem familiar?
When the kids first venture forth on their treasure-hunting journey, a mysterious man who may or may not be the descendant of Louis Lumière tries to warn them of the danger involved. Of course, they ignore him and this brings them to the attention of someone at Alset Tech.
Alset; Tesla.
That's right, the descendant of Nikola Tesla is keeping an eye on the Edison kid and his friends, continuing a rivalry that started way back in the 1800s.
It turns into a personal race against time for Tom as he has to use his instinctual engineering know-how to solve puzzles, hopping from places like the New York Public Library to Yankee Stadium, all the while avoiding Tesla and his goons.
How are the puzzles?
They're pretty cool. One of my favorites involves Mark Twain, antiquated film, Morse code, and perhaps a special edition of Huck Finn the kids have to find. For each puzzle, the kids have to pool their resources to not only solve the riddle, but to stay out of danger's grasp.
My main scruple with these sequences aren't the puzzles themselves, which I think work, but the adventure aspect of the story. I thought the chase sequences and skirmishes were going to be more thrilling, more inventive. These are the descendants of famous inventors, so I wanted to see more gadgets and set-pieces. I wanted to see more Goonies-esque adventure through New York City, if that makes sense.
It's kind of akin to playing a videogame that has a promising world and opportunities for action and solid platforming, but instead you spend most of your time solving riddles and puzzles. So maybe it's a taste thing, I dunno.
However, since this draft is dated March 2006, I hope the writers were able to address my main issue with the story in their rewrite.
Let's think about Amblin and Amblin-style films for a moment. You know, those family style adventure films directed by Spielberg (E.T.) and Joe Dante (Gremlins and Small Soldiers), often written by people like Chris Columbus and Brad Bird (in many ways, I kinda think Brad Bird always makes Amblin-style films).
What constitutes an Amblin-style flick?
a.) Child protagonists who are forced to venture out of their comfort zones in order to preserve their suburban family structures. b.) A high-stakes adventure that captures the imagination and stirs our faculties for awe and wonder. c.) Villains that are childhood fantasies run amok or authority figures that jeopardize the safety of the family unit. d.) And most importantly, wisdom gained at the loss of innocence.
And I felt like this draft of "The Alchemy Papers" was missing this crucial element of innocence lost.
Groan at me all you want, but I found Tom, Bean and Colby to be kind of thin characters. They were lacking some of that inner conflict we like to call flaws and shortcomings. Sure, traces are there (especially for Tom), but it's ignored for exposition and the scavenger-treasure-hunt plot.
Conceptually, this had all the ingredients to excite me. A hero that's a descendant of Thomas Edison? A villain that's a descendant of Nikola Tesla? A high-stakes adventure through the five boroughs of New York City to find a hidden formula to make gold? Count me in! In fact, if I was a Kopelson, I would have bought this script as well, just based on the concept alone.
But you know, although it's satisfying to see a protagonist achieve their goal, it's never nearly as emotionally satisfying to see them conquer some kind of inner conflict they're struggling with. This is the conflict, that, like music, speaks directly to the heart. It moves you.
It's what makes a coming-of-age story a coming-of-age story.
And it's what makes an Amblin-style film an Amblin-style film.
This particular draft of "The Alchemy Papers" is more National Treasure than The Goonies, more The Da Vinci Code than Indiana Jones. It's a great concept for a family adventure flick, and it has some very entertaining scenes, but in this draft, it doesn't move you like you need it to.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Mainly, that if I'm going to be teased with characters who are the descendants of badass inventors, I want to see Rube Goldberg-style mayhem. To me, by creating such characters, I felt like the writers were promising us ingenious pulp adventure. Instead, they opted for sequences that I felt were too rooted in the ordinary world. Show me the goddamn Edison and Tesla progeny running amok in a world that allows for flights of fancy! Which is all to say, if you're writing a fun adventure flick, challenge yourself and try to create an inventive adventure sequence that's as delightful and surprising as the new OK Go video for This Too Shall Pass. For reals.