Monday, March 28, 2011

Repent Harlequin, Said The Ticktockman

Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Premise: In the future, where every minute is kept track of by a time dictator known as the Ticktockman, one man decides to fight the system and help the public seize back their lives.
About: J. Michael Straczynski, through the blessing of his friend Harlan Ellison, who wrote the original short story which won the Hugo Award in 1966, has adapted Harlequin in spec screenplay form. He went out with it recently and to be honest, I don’t know if it sold or not, but I don’t think it did as I can’t find any information that definitively claims it did. J. Michael Straczynski is, of course, the screenwriter of the recently reviewed World War Z.
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski (based on the short story by Harlan Ellison)
Details: 106 pages (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).

What an odd little screenplay this was. I must admit, despite learning that “Repent, Harlequin Said The Ticktockman,” was one of the most famous sci-fi short stories ever written, I had never heard of it up until now. And upon hearing what it was about, I have to say I was pretty excited. Time rationing is a cool science fiction idea. So I was curious to see what Straczynski had done with it.

It’s an unspecified future. In this future, time is valued above all else. You see, in the interim between 2011 and…whenever it is now, the world has become more and more obsessed with time. Every single second must be squeezed out from every single person and that means people can’t be late…ever. Time abuse is not permitted. In fact, the ruling government has become so strict in their efforts to keep everything moving on schedule that they’ve built a mechanism into your heart whereby every minute you’re late, they take away one minute of your life. Try to escape these constraints, they simply press a button and stop your heart altogether.

The ruler of this time-obsessed world is the Ticktockman, an elusive Kim Jong-Il like leader who only emerges when he has to, and is feared by all. He makes sure that there is no one who takes advantage of his OCD-esque scheduled world, and if they do, it’s OFF WITH THEIR HEARTS.

Enter Everett C. Marm, a storage space cleaner who doesn’t abide by the system. Well, he abides by it when he’s being watched, but Everett steals minutes of relaxation and fun whenever he can. He actually ENJOYS himself in those moments, something that isn’t accepted in this world.

Well one day, while cleaning out a storage locker, he finds a room filled with old toys. It’s a revelation to him, as toys (signifying an age where people enjoyed “leisure time”) aren’t made anymore. Specifically, he finds an old harlequin costume (one of those costumes that makes you look like a court jester) and formulates an idea. What if he could become a “super hero,” a man who reminds the lemmings what it’s like to enjoy themselves again?

So that’s exactly what he does. He pops on the costume, starts running around the city, and causes all sorts of mayhem, which results in people being late for work or late for appointments. This forces them, for the first time, to just….enjoy the moment. These moments of enjoyment begin to spread, and soon the population is starting to wonder if the time-constricted world they’re a part of is really the best thing for them.

The Ticktockman, realizing his grip on the people is slipping, dedicates all of his efforts to find and expose the Harlequin, in order to save his dictatorship.

So, how was it?

Okay, I feel very strongly about this even though I know some hardcore sci-fi lovers share the opposite opinion. I believe that you entertain FIRST and do your social commentary SECOND when writing a movie. I get that sci-fi, in particular, is a great venue to bring to light modern day socio-political problems. District 9 brought to light how we treated the less fortunate in Johannesburg.

But for any of that to actually rub off on your viewer, you need to make sure you’re entertaining them first. Or else you might as well plop them in front of a CNN broadcast. That was my big problem with Harlequin. It's geared so extensively to deliver a message, that it’s never that entertaining. "Enjoy yourself. Smell the roses," is what the story keeps telling us.  The irony being that we're not enjoying ourselves. I wanted a story.  Instead I got a moral.

This is also a tonally strange screenplay. On the one hand we’re living in this technologically superior futuristic city. But on the other, our main character is dressed up in an 18th century harlequin costume bouncing around town like a court jester. I had a really hard time bringing those two visuals together. I don’t know, it felt like Charlie Chaplin dressed up in a clown costume doing pratfalls in front of a Minority Report skyscraper. For example, in one of the central set pieces, the Harlequin unloads thousands of jellybeans onto the city to bring it to a halt. Jellybeans? Really?

I guess the movie it reminded me of the most was V for Vendetta. And I really disliked that movie. But I realize that a lot of people *did* like that movie, so I’m thinking those same people might like Harlequin. Still, it's hard to argue that this didn't feel like the year 2100 imagined by someone living in 1783. For example, there’s no mention of the internet at all here. It’s as if it doesn’t exist. And, of course, that’s because it if it did exist, the story couldn’t exist, because people don’t act like the people in this story if they have the internet. That then makes the future of Repent Harlequin an alternate reality and boy do I hate alternate reality futures because they eliminate the suspension of disbelief. If you don’t believe that this could really happen, if you're not truly worried that this is the direction the world is headed in, then why should you care?

Still, I feel like some of you will like this. It reminded me in many ways of Frank Darabont’s Farenheit 451, and as many of you remember, I so did not like that script either (also because it was set in an alternate reality).

I guess in the end this is a stylized interpretation of an alternate reality future. It’s highly conceptual and so you need to buy into a lot of things to suspend your disbelief. If you can make that happen, or if the alternate reality vibe doesn’t bother you, hey, you very well might love it.  I couldn't unfortunately. I will give it this though. It’s unlike anything that’s coming out in the theaters today. And that’s always a good thing.

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

What I learned: The funny thing is, most writers have the opposite problem. They have no theme. They have nothing they’re trying to say. As a result, their story is thin and forgettable. But the deep-thinkers, the people who use film to say something about the world, their problem is that sometimes they get a little too wrapped up in their message. And they need to be reminded: First and foremost, people go to the movies to be entertained. They want a story first and to be preached to second. If you mix up the order of those two things, if you get too heady on them and they feel like you’re teaching them something, you’re dead. This is especially true with a sci-fi audience, as they want to be entertained more than any audience out there. I think time-rationing is a cool idea. But Harlequin made me feel like I was back in college English debating philosophy. It was too much.