Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Out Of This World

Genre: Drama/Comedy/Family/Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Fish-Out-Of-Water/Thriller?
Premise: After being the first person born on Mars, 15 year old Gardner falls for an earth girl via an online relationship.
About: There isn’t much information on this one. I don’t think it ever sold. I believe Allan Loeb is developing it with the person he created the idea with. As we all know, Allan Loeb is one of the hardest working and highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood, working on films as far ranging as Things We Lost In The Fire to The Dilemma to Wall Street 2. He’d been writing for something like 12 years with no success before he broke through with “Fire.” I reviewed one of his spec scripts a couple of years back, “The Only Living Boy In New York.”
Writer: Allan Loeb (based on a story by Allan Loeb and Richard B. Lewis)
Details: 122 pages - undated (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).

This one just sounded too bizarre to pass up. A kid - born on Mars - who falls in love with an earth girl over the internet. Now THAT is wild. And in more ways than one. Because when I heard that idea, I immediately thought of a dozen story problems they were going to run into. And I just didn’t see any of those problems being solved. Because I’ve seen them hundreds of times in scripts before and they’re notoriously difficult to overcome. Anyway, I don’t know what I was expecting when I opened this screenplay, but I knew it was going to be worthy of discussion.

Astronaut Sarah Elliot is preparing to be one of the first colonists on Mars. A day before her launch, she celebrates with her boyfriend with a little nookie nookie, if you know what I’m saying (I’m saying sex). Bad idea. Sarah ends up pregnant (which they find out quickly after launch), which means she’ll now be having a baby…on Mars. This is how Gardener Elliot comes into the universe, as the first known “alien” (born on another planet) in human history.

Sarah dies and Gardner grows up on Mars, mostly under the care of Kendra Wyndham, the only person on the red planet who doesn’t treat him like a freak show. Once Gardner hits his teenage years, he starts communicating with people back on earth, specifically a young alternative troubled girl named Root Beer. He falls for her, but doesn’t tell her his true identity.

Back on earth, the totally uncool head scientist of NASA, Ed Jurado, wants to use the first person born on Mars as his own personal guinea pig, so he orders Gardner to come back home on the next flight. Kendra comes with him, and nine months later Gardner sets foot on earth for the first time.

When he realizes he’s there to be studied though, he makes a run for it, looking for his online crush Root Beer and then his mysterious father (who was never informed of Gardner’s existence). After a few fish out of water sequences, Gardner makes it to Colorado where he finally teams up with his little bottle of A&W, and the two head to California, where they believe his father is living.

Ed Jurado and his nasties are always hot on their trail, while Kendra is forming her own one-woman show to divert them and save Gardner before he’s turned into a permanent lab rat. May the best…space…….person…team win.

So, like I said, when I heard this idea, I could see the problems from a million miles away (no pun intended). These are screenplay problems that even the best screenwriters in the world are going to have difficulty solving, so I was curious to see if Loeb could hurdle them. Here are the first three that came to mind.

1) Relationships over the internet are boring and un-cinematic. How would they deal with this?

Well, about midway through the movie, our young heroes finally meet, allowing them to be, in fact, face to face, at least for the second half of the movie. But it’s too little, too late, because, as I feared, up until that point you have two people e-mailing each other. And I don’t care if you’re the most original most amazing writer in the world. You can’t make two people e-mailing each other interesting. And no, don’t use “You’ve Got Mail” as an example. You’ve Got Mail is a terrible movie. But even if you argue that it’s a good movie (and you’d be wrong), the newness of e-mail was what allowed that script to overcome that rule. Keep your characters face to face people. It’s waaaaay more interesting.

2) How do you set up the Mars situation quickly?

When I heard this idea, I knew they were going to have to use a lot of exposition just to explain why this kid was on Mars in the first place. Whenever you have to explain something complicated, it eats up valuable screenplay real estate, real estate you should be using to tell your story, not explain what happened before the story. Sure enough, Out of This World has to burn its entire first act just to explain how our main character was born on Mars. This means the real story, coming back to earth, doesn’t get started until the second act. I would never want to be tasked with figuring out how to make this work. It’s just too complicated and no matter how you slice it, it requires endless explaining.

3) How is hooking up with a girl going to feel important to an audience when compared with a kid living on Mars?

To me, the bigness of this idea rests with the Mars angle. So doesn’t making the goal of our hero to hook up with a girl back on earth feel…I don’t know, a mite insignificant in comparison? I mean I get that the goal here is to have the reader love the characters so much that their relationship WILL feel like the most important thing in the script. But this goes back to problem number 1. How do you do that when you can’t even put your leads on the same planet for the first half of the movie? We’re just talking about impossible-to-solve screenplay scenarios here.

The uneven setup helped contribute to a few more clunky situations. Gardner gets to earth at the midway point, making what was a long-distance love story now a fish-out-of-water semi-comedy. Changing genres in the middle of your script is never a good idea. And the messy way it’s executed here doesn’t do the script any favors. It basically turns into the teenage version of Starman for the second half.

As if that weren’t bad enough, so that we don’t forget about Root Beer, the story is forced to keep jumping back to her. We already have an extremely complicated story with Gardner. That we now have to jump away from this story to highlight Root Beer makes things even clunkier.

And then there were just a lot of lazy choices. The villain, Ed Jurado, was one of the more one-dimensional villains I’ve read in forever. There’s a setup and payoff with 15 year old Root Beer owning a crop duster and using it to help them escape the government baddies, despite not believing any of Gardner’s story about being hunted by the government because he’s from Mars. Yes, we have a 15 year old pilot on our hands. And then there was the IM’ing when Gardner was on Mars. Mars is like 50 million miles away. It has at least a 45 minute delay in communication. That's going to be one boring IM session.


I will say this about Loeb’s writing though. He has an amazing ability to string words together in a pleasing easy-to-read way. I don’t think I’ve ever read a script I’ve disliked as fast as I did “Out Of This World.” I know that’s a bit of a backhanded compliment but seriously, after reading The Infiltrator, where every word felt like it had a stop sign at the end of it, this was one continuous stream of green lights. Maybe this is part of why he’s such an in-demand writer. His scripts are so easy to read.

Is there a story in here? I don’t think there is. It’s just too complicated. But if I were judging what worked best, I would say the fish-out-of-water stuff. That’s where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck. So if you can get Gardner down to earth a LOT sooner, have him interact with the earth, and maybe meet Root Beer THEN as opposed to earlier on the internet? I suspect this story would be a lot cleaner and a lot better. But yeah, I couldn’t get into it.

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

What I learned: Just because an idea is cool or interesting or even great, it doesn’t mean it should be a movie. Sometimes you have ideas that simply can’t be executed. It unfortunately takes time and experience to learn which ideas fall into this category, but I will say this: Sci-fi or fantasy ideas that require a ton of backstory (as is the case with Out Of This World) are usually the biggest culprits. That’s not to say that’s the case with all of them (Star Wars was pretty good I remember), but just be wary of those ideas when they pop into your head. Make sure they’re workable in story form.