Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Space Invader

Genre: Comedy
Premise: When he suspects that his long-time astronaut girlfriend might be cheating on him up on the International Space Station, Doug, a janitor for NASA, decides to head into space to stop her.
About: Space Invader has been kicking around development for a couple of years now. At one point it was gearing up for production, but like an aborted shuttle launch, fell apart at the last second. Part of the problem may be the attachment of Will Arnett. Not that I have anything against Arnett. He’s funny and actually perfect for the role, but it’s hard to justify a 50 million dollar price tag with him in the lead. Also complicating things is that Fox Atomic, who owned the property, is no longer around. From what I hear that usually throws a wrench into production. The writers, Lisbe and Reger (who sold the script back in 2007) met while writing on Spin City. They are currently working as producers on “Shit My Dad Says.” Writer/Actor Justin Theroux, who wrote Iron Man 2 and Tropic Thunder, is said to have written a new draft of this. But this is the original one that sold.
Writers: Mike Lisbe & Nate Reger
Details: 114 pages – Februay 5, 2007 (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).

Sometimes shit just makes you laugh.

This made me laugh.

From the very first page, where our hero walks towards the shuttle in cheesy “The Right Stuff” slo-mo, I felt like I was watching a movie. The gimmick where we realize he’s not an astronaut, but rather a janitor, is so pitch perfect that you know exactly what kind of comedy you’re about to get.

And you’re either going to be into it or not (a couple of you have already e-mailed to inform me you were emphatically NOT).

Despite you Negative Nellies, I really liked it.  So what's it about? 

Doug Huggins Jr., the only cocky janitor in NASA history, never became an astronaut. His father was one of the greatest astronauts of all time but none of that rubbed off on Doug. Doug seems strangely okay with this and gets by with a little help from his best friend Glenn (who’s 30 and decides to “retire” when he inherits 150 thousand dollars, which Doug points out will mean he has to live on 3,000 dollars a year) and his perfect girlfriend Beth.

How Doug landed Beth, a beautiful astronaut about to embark on her first mission, is a bigger mystery than how we’re getting to Mars, but he somehow got her, and boy is he doing his best to screw it up. Doug’s been with Beth for five years and *still* hasn’t popped the question. Naturally this has become a point of contention in the relationship (it always is, isn't it?).

Joining Beth up on this mission is Stamp Majors, who’s like Buzz Aldrin mixed with President Obama mixed with Bono mixed with Brad Pitt. He’s the perfect human being and universally loved across the world. But the bigger issue here is that maybe, just maybe, he has a little thing for Beth.

So when the two head up to the International Space Station and Doug sees them astro-flirt on TV, he’s convinced that Beth is going to leave him for Stamp. So what does he do? Well, he decides to go up and stop her!

Getting up to space stations is tricky but when the Latvian government mistakes Doug for his famous father, they agree to put him on their next rocket to space.

Ground control to major Tom......

Beth is more than a little surprised when Doug show up, but it appears it’s too little too late. Doug is a loser who had his chance and blew it. Stamp is perfect and every woman’s dream. Looks like the trip was for naught. It’s one thing when you drive over to your ex’s house and she tells you it’s over. It’s quite another when you show up at her space station and she tells you it’s over. Awwwwk-ward.

But Doug won’t give up, and gets into a duel with Stamp, determined to prove himself as the better man. Over the course of this duel, he finds out that Stamp is (of course) a slimy asshole who’s faking his whole Superman persona. He’s really a jerk who just wants to get into Beth’s pants. Once Doug figures that out, it’s game on.

Did I mention I liked this? It’s an original idea for a comedy, something I haven’t quite seen before, and as we discuss a lot, that’s the first step – give the reader something they haven’t seen before. It’s like slipping the bouncer 20 bucks at the club. You get to walk to the front of the line.

Now part of any comedy’s success depends on whether the reader personally finds the subject matter funny, and that’s something that’s going to change from person to person. I happen to think comedies that revolve around cheating are funny, so to take that to the extreme by having a guy fly to a space station to stop his girlfriend from cheating on him was hilarious.

Contrast this with an infidelity film that’s about to hit theaters – The Dilemma – and I don’t know what the hell those writers were thinking. The hook in that movie is that a guy can’t figure out whether he should tell his buddy his wife is cheating on him?? Where the hell is the conflict in that?? “Yes.” The answer’s “Yes.” Movie over. The focus should be on the people involved, not the people associated with the people involved. Talk about finding the least interesting angle to a story. But I digress.

I think a key reason why the comedy works here is that both the hero, Doug, and the villain, Stamp, are eccentric weird exaggerated funny characters. Doug is a slacker janitor who’s afraid of commitment yet completely oblivious as to why Beth would leave him. And Stamp is living a dual life – pretending to be a hero when he’s really an egotistical asshole who’s infatuated with himself. Watching these two – neither of which is good enough for Beth – battle for her heart is hilarious.

There are, unfortunately, some problems that kept this from getting an impressive. I’m not sure I ever bought the whole “Latvian” angle. A country with barely enough money to run itself isn’t going to have a space program, no matter how decrepit. I thought Lisbe and Reger walked a tough line, trying to make the comedy just broad enough so that we would buy this, but I never did.

I thought Glenn, the best friend character, was stupid. There’s this whole thing where he hasn’t gotten laid in seven years and now he’s trying to have sex with one of the Japanese astronauts…It just felt like he belonged in another movie. This is a common issue all writers run into, especially in comedies. You have someone who may be a good character, but they’re not a good character for this movie and that’s how Glenn felt.

But the biggest miscalculation is the twist ending. And I’m going to spoil it for you here – that’s how much confidence I have that they’re going to change it – so if you don’t want to know, stop reading. Late in the script, Stamp reveals he’s secretly working for the Latvian government and is holding Beth for ransom to get 10 billion dollars from the U.S. to give to Latvia. Besides the endless logistical problems with this twist (after Latvia receives the money, the American military can just walk into the country and take it back), it’s just a desperate twist. It doesn’t feel natural to the story we’ve been reading for the past 70 minutes.

Luckily, there are enough laughs in the finale to overcome it, but it’s a dark cloud on an otherwise really funny script. If they can figure out this ending (or if Theroux already did) this could be a classic. Really dug it.

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

What I learned: The forced twist - One of the worst things you can do as a writer is throw a twist in just to throw a twist in. Like I mentioned above, instead of the Stamp twist being clever, it's desperate, like you don’t believe in your story enough to let it stand on its own, so you need to slap in some gimmick to mask the other problems the script has. It would take me too long to discuss how to plant the perfect twist, but I can at least give you a method for detecting if your twist works. Simply ask, “Does it feel right?” Be honest with yourself. Does it feel like a natural extension of your story? Take a look at Hancock, a messy ugly screenplay. There was clearly a desperation there – writers feeling like they needed to do *something* to spice things up. So they threw the Charlize Theron twist in there and, well, we all know how that played. Make sure your twist feels right before committing to it.