Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Vault

Genre: Action/Comedy/Heist/Sci-fi
Premise: (from IMDB) When a terrifying plague destroys crops and causes starvation on a global scale, the world's greatest thief must break into the extremist-controlled Doomsday Vault to steal the one seed that could prevent the extinction of the human race.
About: Brian K. Vaughn is a comic book writer (Y The Last Man), a TV writer (Lost) and a screenwriter (Roundtable – recently reviewed on the site). The Vault is his newest spec, which hit Hollywood a couple of months ago and impressed many a people. It appears to be in one of those situations where they’re seeking out talent and/or a director before selling it.
Writer: Brian K. Vaughn
Details: 110 pages, January 2010 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I'm loving how this thing was modeled after a sandcrawler

One thing you gotta love about Vaughn. He doesn’t hold back. The man lets his imagination go hog wild and I think part of that is because he started in comic books. In comic books, every idea of yours can be realized by a jar of ink. You don’t feel the constraints because there are no constraints. Screenwriters don’t have that luxury because they know having their words realized as pictures is a virtual impossibility. Get too crazy with a character, location or situation (having your characters swoop in via space plane to a domed 2050 Tokyo for instance – one of the scenes in The Vault), and a producer might not be able to wrap their brain around it (or their checkbook). Hence a screenwriter is a mite more conservative.

That’s what took me by surprise with The Vault – is just how ambitious it was. This is basically Star Wars circa 2050. And we all know how eager Hollywood is to accept wild mega-budgeted material that isn’t part of a pre-existing franchise. But if there’s any one who can change their mind, it’s the man behind today’s script.

The year is 2050. Nearly all the crops in the world have been wiped out by something called “The Blight,” a malicious virus that has sent the entire world into starvation. Only the rich are holding on and even their stash is running out.

Introduce wisecracking Han Solo'esque Sebastian Card, a master thief. In fact, we meet Sebastian as he’s tunneling up and under Fort Knox, which doesn’t hold money anymore. It holds food. When Sebastian finally breaks in, we realize the whole point of this elaborate operation was to simply eat some cheese. No, I’m not kidding. He robbed Fort Knox for cheese.


Caught soonafter, the Secretary of Agriculture (the only 300 pound man left in existence – because he gorges on human meat) calls Sebastian in to propose a deal of sorts. In order to gain back his freedom, he wants Sebastian to go to an island near the North Pole where a vault is holding all the world’s seeds. Records have shown that the Vault contains a seed that is immune to The Blight. If they can get that seed, they can regrow the crop population and singlehandedly save the world.

There is a catch of course. The impossible to penetrate Vault is being guarded by someone named Baron, an African extremist with his own agenda. Baron is offering the seed to the first nation who gives him all of their nuclear submarines. He’s got the U.S. on the clock for 48 hours. If they don’t come up with the nukes, he’ll move on to one of the other superpowers. And if that happens, the most dangerous man in the world will have himself an arsenal of nuclear weapons which will allow him to basically make any demand he can think up. To put it simply, Sebastian has 2 days to break into the Vault and get that seed!

He’ll be joined by Maxine, a hot bald marine chick whose previous attempt at getting into the Vault resulted in capture by Baron. After months of torture she finally escaped. She knows the Vault inside out. Of course, Sebastian and Maxine dislike each other immensely, which makes their pairing entirely inefficient. However, since she’s the only one who knows her way around once they get inside, there’s nothing Sebastian can do about it.

The team zips around the world in a super plane capable of traveling thousands of miles in minutes, all in preparation for the biggest and most important heist in the history of the world.

Did you get all that?

I don't know for what part, but I think Patton Oswald needs to be in this movie.

The Vault is….weird. There’s no other way to explain it. Then again, I'm sure people described the script for Star Wars the same way. There's a guy in a black mask and cape? There's a giant walking dog who doesn't speak? While The Vault not only embraces its absurdity but flaunts it, there’s no avoiding just how absurd it gets in places. From characters breaking into Fort Knox for cheese to the Secretary of Agriculture feasting on human remains ground up from the prison population to a band of snowmobiling eco-terrorist soldiers. Sometimes these moments are fun. Other times they have you wondering if you’ve stumbled onto another screenplay. For example, it’s implied that Maxine was repeatedly raped and defiled while in Baron’s captivity. For a movie which I thought was a fun comedy, wedging in the whole rape angle felt a little out of place.

For me personally though, I just wanted the logic to be sound. I understand this is a comedy and that some leeway has to be given, but there were definitely logic issues that bothered me. For example, I had a hard time believing that the U.S. couldn’t break into the Vault on their own. If they still have nuclear weapons, they can probably scrounge together an army of 100,000 troops and I’m pretty sure that army could break into a Vault guarded by a couple dozen eco-terrorists. You put "eco" in front of anything and it immediately makes that thing four times more wimpy. So I'm not anticipating much of a battle there.

Then there’s Japan. Tokyo has domed their city to protect itself from The Blight. There's green grass everywhere and they can grow any plant they want. While I can buy into the idea that exporting these plants would still result in them being affected by the virus and therefore dying, the existence of thousands of healthy plants in the world, domed or not domed, made the pursuit of a single seed seem a lot less important.

And while I’m guessing Vaughn will fix this in rewrites, I wasn’t crazy about spending an entire sequence flying to Los Angeles just to walk through a replica of The Vault to see what they were up against, mainly because there was no drama to the sequence. It was obviously there for exposition and exposition only.

But I liked a lot about The Vault too. I liked the Han Solo/Princess Leia like banter between Sebastian and Maxine. Their whole relationship definitely felt like an updated version of that memorable duo. I liked how brave Vaughn was with his choices. He really wasn’t afraid to do anything that popped into his head. There are sword-wielding killer female androids for God’s sake. I love the discussion it inspires. This may be fiction but all it takes is watching one of those History Channel specials to realize that if the farming and food distribution system broke down in any significant way, there’s a good chance our government would fall apart within months, maybe even weeks. Seeing the extreme version of that here just got me thinking how thin the line between prosperity and chaos really is. And to top it all off, it's a good time. Most everyone I've talked to trumpets how fun the script is, and I can't argue that.

Still, I think Vaughn may have hit the streets with The Vault a little too soon. That may be due to his experiences with Roundtable, which was also a little rough around the edges when it was purchased. But the difference here is that this is an entire universe, an entire mythology that needs to be created. And as exciting and imaginative as it is, there are times when it doesn’t feel fleshed out. The pieces are there, but I wouldn’t mind seeing Vaughn take another couple of passes and really weave a tapestry as opposed to just laying out the yarn.

I think that anything Vaughn writes is worth reading, and The Vault doesn’t change that opinion. But there are a few too many puddles in the journey to make me go gaga. If you have it, read it, and tell me what you think.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Vaughn uses a lot of underlining in his screenplays. A lot. And unlike how it affects most readers, heavy underlining, bold, or italics doesn’t bother me, as long as there’s a purpose and a uniformity to it. But I have to admit, the more you accentuate your text, the less effective the purpose behind it becomes. So if you underline 3 times a page, sooner or later I just tune out the underlining. As a reader, I’ve found that underlining works best when it’s used sparingly, and as a tool to set up an important moment later in the story. So for example, in Back To The Future, if you remember the opening scene, we pan around to all the clocks, then come down to the door as it opens and Marty’s foot appears. He kicks his skateboard over to the bed. And underneath the bed, we see a radiation suitcase. That radiation suitcase is the perfect thing to underline because everything else in the scene is so irrelevant. The reader’s reading fast and if you don’t bring to their attention this item that sets up a HUGE part of the story later, we might not catch it. Ideally, there are probably five or six of these “underline-worthy” moments in a story. I’m not going to say you can’t underline to your heart’s content like Vaughn – everyone has their own style – but in my experience, that’s the way underlining seems to have the most effect on a reader.