Monday, April 23, 2012

Screenplay Review - On A Clear Day

The Black List strikes again with this high-octane sci-fi thriller. But does it have the stamina to make it to the finish line?

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: The United States is attacked by an unknown enemy that is vastly superior to them in every military category. Who could it possibly be?
About: On A Clear Day finished on last year’s Black List. It currently has Jaume Collet-Serra attached to direct. Collet-Serra was the director of Orphan and Unknown. He is also attached to direct the long-gestating live-action adaptation of Akira. Ryan Engle, the writer, gets the Fascinating Adaptation Award of the year, as he adapted “Rampage.” You guys remember that one? The video game where monsters leapt onto buildings and smashed stuff up? I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall during those development meetings.
Writer: Ryan Engle
Details:116 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).

You guys know how I feel about How It Ends. L-O-V-E luv it! Anything where the end of the world is coming and you gotta figure out a way to stay alive is a conflict mating call. Unless, of course, you do it realllllyyyyy slowwwwwwwly. I won't mention any scripts by name but I think you know which end of the world script I'm talking about.

Anyway, if How It Ends had one of those cousins that looks so freakishly like you that you start seriously considering you’re a clone, On A Clear Day would be that cousin. The two scripts start very similarly. In fact, they start in the exact same city – Seattle! Coincidence?

So Seattlein Peter Fox is a normal family guy who, oh yeah, just lost his job. Not ideal when you're trying to support two daughters and a wife. Oh yeah, and you have another one on the way, which you don’t know about yet because your wife, Molly, hasn't told you. Things are looking very bleak on the economic front for the Fox family. The hare has passed them by.

That’s the one good thing about a bloodthirsty attacking army – it puts things in perspective. All of a sudden, a middle-management job with above average health benefits doesn't seem so important. Indeed, just minutes after Molly comes back from dropping the kids off at school, explosions start ringing out everywhere.

Peter and Molly know that their immediate job is to get back to that school and save their daughters. But as soon as they get outside, they realize how bad it is. There are explosions happening in EVERY DIRECTION. Operation Daughter Save is too important though so they head into the heart of the city.

That’s when they first see the enemy. A tank. Shockingly huge. All black. Sleek. Blowing everything to pieces.

*They* may have not figured it out yet, but us sci-fi geeks have. The future has sent back an army to take over the past! Eventually, Peter and Molly catch up to us, but that doesn’t make things any easier. In fact, when Molly gets injured, they’re forced to split up. And that’s when Peter sees the extent of the attack – the army is carting everyone away in trucks. Something tells me they’re not getting a sightseeing cruise around Pugent Sound.

But it's about to get way worse, and you can blame James Cameron for that. Our Terminator-inspired army is hunting down specific people who could cause them harm in the future – and PETER IS ONE OF THEM! Also, because they’re, you know, from the future, they know where Peter’s going to be before he does! Somehow, then, Peter has to circumvent this army and these odds to get his wife back and save his daughters. All before Future Army And Friends destroy the city.

This script took you by the tail and swung you around like a giant ferris wheel. The first 25 pages were probably the best I've read all year. I didn't know what was going on (hadn’t read the logline) so I was having a blast trying to figure out who this mystery army was.

And it was just so easy to read!

That's something I've been appreciating more and more lately: easy to read writing. I've been reading through all these Twit-Pitch scripts and it's strange how some of them allow your eyes to just fly down the page while others keep you reading the same paragraphs over and over again. And it's not even obvious what's wrong. They’re competently written. It's just the way the sentences are constructed is clunky. Either there’s too much information or the order of the information is off or something. It’s unnecessarily difficult.

But the thing I really loved about this script was that Engle always had a huge goal pushing the characters forward. AND… as soon as that goal expired, he’d replace it with a new goal. So there were never any lags in the script. It always moved because his characters always had something immediate to do.

So it starts out with Peter having to save his kids. That's his goal. But on the way there, Molly gets injured. So there's a new goal: Get her to the hospital. Once at the hospital, they get split up because the Army moves in. So there's a new goal, he has to find Molly. Once he does, we go back to the original goal. They have to find and save their kids. This process is essential for a movie like this because a movie like this needs to move. If you don't have a sense of urgency in a movie where the United States is being attacked, then you probably haven't written a good script.

For the record, setting new goals for your characters every 10-15 pages for is one of the easiest ways to keep the pace of your screenplay brisk. I read scripts all the time where writers don't introduce a new goal right after they’ve finished a recent one and let me tell you, those scripts get boring REALLY fast. You ALWAYS want to have your character driving towards something. The second they’re not, they’re passive. And passive people are boring.

I do have to admit, though, that the pace got a little exhausting towards the end. I felt like I was on the 23rd mile of a 25 mile marathon and my legs finally gave out. It’s strange because the pace was “Day’s” biggest strength, but at a certain point we needed to relax. Even Weekend-long benders in Vegas require some nap time.

Another problem was that the first half of the script was so good, it was almost impossible for the second half to live up to it. In any “on the run” script like this, the big danger is that things are going to get repetitive. To prevent this, you want to introduce a new element at the midpoint that adds some sizzle to the story. I always use Pitch Black as an example of this. In the first half, they’re discovering the world and looking for a way off of it. In the second half, darkness comes and millions of flying beasts shoot out of the middle of the planet to make that search infinitely more difficult. That’s what saved that movie from being repetitive.

I didn't get that here so the redundancy factor kicked in.

Still, this was just so well-written, so strongly paced and such a structurally impressive screenplay, that in the end, the positives outweighed the negatives. And I loved the idea of the future attacking the past. I’ve been waiting for a script to take advantage of that idea for awhile.

So I would recommend this one – especially to sci-fi geeks. If the second half had given me a little more, this may have finished a rating higher. 

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: What I liked about this script was that it never let the characters off the hook. There's a moment where Peter’s survived an extended battle with a soldier in the hospital. As soon as he kills the guy, however, he hears two more soldiers coming down the hall. So he hides behind a corner. In almost all the screenplays I read, after an extended battle like this, the writer lets the character sneak away. Engle doesn’t. The new soldiers spot Peter immediately and come after him. It’s a small thing but it’s what makes this script so intense. Nobody’s ever allowed an easy out. Every single moment is difficult. – So always look to make things difficult for your hero. Never let them off the hook!