Monday, August 23, 2010

Vanishing On 7th Street

Genre: Horror/Supernatural
Premise: A strange event results in nearly everyone in the world vanishing into thin air. A small group of survivors find each other and try to figure out what happened.
About: Brad Anderson, the director of “Vanishing,” has always been an interesting filmmaker to me, but truth be told his films have left me wanting more. Session 9 was cool, but I still couldn’t tell you exactly what it was. Was it a horror movie? A serial killer movie? It seemed like an excuse to shoot at a creepy location more than anything. The Machinist was okay, but confused me more than it entertained me. It too lacked conviction. I wanted that movie to slug me in the face and it seemed more intent on tickling me to death. So I think the jury’s still out on him. Anderson’s found a solid cast in his latest though, with Hayden Christensen, John Leguizamo, and Thandie Newton onboard. Anthony Jaswinski, the writer, has written a couple of movies for TV, has another couple in development, but is best known around these parts as the writer of the spec script “Kristy,” which has poked up on the Scriptshadow Reader Top 25 before. The script is about a girl who’s terrorized on a deserted college campus.
Writer: Anthony Jaswinski
Details: Blue Rev. 9/22/09 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. 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).

The Vanishing on 7th Street is a script that starts off strong but, like a lot of these scripts, gets swallowed up in its own ambition. The ultra high-concept premise lures us in like fresh garbage to a family of raccoons. The question is, is the premise *too* high concept? Wha? Huh? Buh? ‘How can that even be possible’ you ask?? A premise is too high concept when no matter what you do with the story, it will never be as interesting as the concept itself. In other words, you bite off more than you can chew. And unfortunately, I think that’s the case with Vanishing.

Paul is a quiet keeps-to-himself projectionist in his 40s who lives a very similar existence to his job – isolated, alone, doesn’t want to be bothered. He spends his free time like all of us do, gobbling up quantum physics in textbook form (Come on, you know you dig the quantum). When the projector stops, Paul gets up to check out what’s going on in the theater, only to see that everyone is gone. Did Paul accidentally screen The Switch? No, the audience simply…vanished.

Paul wanders into the adjacent mall, hearing the occasional scream, but notices that he’s the only one there. Instead of raiding Cinnabon though, Paul stumbles out into the streets where he realizes that all the cars have stopped, all the phones are out, and poor dogs are walking around without owners. The Vanishing has apparently spared canines.

72 hours later we catch up with Luke, our brooding hero played by Hayden Christensen. Luke split up with his wife to work here and he’s never quite found peace with the decision. As is always the case, you don't start missing someone until the damn world's about to blow up.

Eventually Luke runs into a group of people. The first is Paul, our projectionist friend. The second is James, a teenager who’s waiting for his mom to come back (it ain’t happening kid), and then there’s Maya, a nurse who’s a few bad meals from going off the deeeeeep end.

The group holes up in a tavern and tries to figure out why the hell people are, you know, disappearing. Some believe it’s a pissed off God. Some think the universe is systematically closing down. Others think that there’s no reason at all. It just simply…happened.

But while theories are flying fast and free, a far more pressing problem arises. The group starts to hear voices in the shadows, and become aware that the light is the only thing keeping them alive. Slip out of it and into the darkness, and the beasts/monsters behind those eerie voices pull you away. The group must formulate a plan to escape before the light runs out.

The Vanishing on 7th Street has a lot of scenes and visuals and sounds that would get any director excited. There’s a baby stroller lit under a lone streetlight. A character opens a door to another room only to find a concrete wall. Characters in hoods slide through a city bathed in pockets of light. Voices spookily taunt characters from behind the shadows. Visually and aurally, there is definitely a movie here. I just don’t know if there’s a story.

The big hook – the actual vanishing – wears off quickly and we’re stuck with these characters who technically all have solid goals (to survive) but aren’t all that interesting. They seem only a quarter or a half realized. For example, Paul, who’s a science geek, comes up with this cool theory that whoever created the universe is shutting it down piece by piece, and the people of this planet are the first to be turned off. Yet that’s all I can remember about Paul, was his theory. I couldn’t tell you about any character flaws or what happened in his life that pushed him into such an isolated existence. He’s like the hand and the leg of a person instead of the entire body.

Luke is more thought out and has the backstory with his wife, but this information doesn’t inform the story or the character at all. Besides a quick throwaway conversation, Luke doesn’t seem that interested in finding or getting back to his wife. He spoke of it being an issue, but we didn’t FEEL it was an issue. Which leads me to a bigger problem. Nobody here really had a plan. There’s this vague notion that they should find a working car (all the cars are dead) and drive somewhere. But where? I always say that once your character’s motivations are unclear, your movie is dead, because the audience isn’t interested in watching characters without a point, without a plan. And that’s how I felt once the second half of Vanishing rolled around.

Instead, the script focuses on middle-of-the-road conversations the characters have which contain little to no conflict beneath them. “Who are you?” “What do you think it is?” “I want to find my mom.” One of the reasons Aliens is so awesome is because those characters had so much going on underneath the surface. Ripley is trying to save this little girl. Burke is planning to sacrifice Ripley for money and glory. Bishop is an android, who our hero hates but must trust to survive. There was a real dynamic between the characters ripe for conflict. Here, it’s like each character is on their own island, inflicting no cause or effect on any of the other characters. It was frustrating.

Admittedly, Anderson and Jawinski seem to be tackling some really deep issues and thoughts in this movie, and I’m not sure if I’m smart enough to understand them. I definitely felt like something bigger was happening here, that symbolism and metaphors and a multi-layered narrative were all present. But because I wasn’t engaged in the storyline, I didn’t care to figure out any of that stuff.

Vanishing is a strange cross between Flashforward, The Darkest Hour, The Langoliers, and The Happening. It’s very Steven Kingish, and I anticipate King fans will dig the vibe. But the script is never better than in its opening act, and that can’t happen in a script.

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

What I learned: Think long and hard about whether you can deliver on your huge premise before you write it. If the concept that sends your story into motion is the best thing about your script, then you only have one-fourth of a script. What if aliens invaded our planet tomorrow? Okay, great concept. But then what? How do you keep that interesting for the 100 minutes after they invade? If you want to see how bad someone can screw this up, go rent Independence Day. Just make sure to also rent a gun, as you’ll want to shoot yourself by the midpoint. I think the key to these high concept ideas is making sure you have a story ready on the personal level after you hit your audience with the hook. So in District 9, the hook was, “What if aliens got stuck here and we enslaved them in a ghetto?” But the personal story was, “What if a human started turning into one of these aliens and had to find a way to turn back before it was too late?” That’s a story that can sustain itself the whole way through. The story within the story baby...the story within the story. :)