Friday, June 29, 2012

Screenplay Review - Orbital War (Amateur Friday)

NEW Amateur Friday Submission Process: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, a PDF of the first ten pages of your script, your title, genre, logline, and finally, why I should read your script. Use my submission address please: Your script and “first ten” will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effect of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: (from writer) In the year 3000, the husband and wife survivors of an elite black ops unit are on a mission to infiltrate a rebelling orbital state, resolve a tense hostage situation and avenge their fallen teammates. As the only people admitted Upstairs are kids and their parents, the operatives have to adopt a 13-year old girl as their cover.
About: A year ago, a brave young Scriptshadow reader subjected himself to an Amateur Friday Review that might have been the most infamous ever if not for a certain Trajent Future.  If you don't feel like reading that review, I'll boil it down for you.  I laid into the script for not having a plot, structure, or characters.  It felt like it'd been written in a week. Well, Sweden, who took a beating in that review and in the talkback, ingested all that feedback, went back to the drawing board, and approached the story from a whole new angle.  This is his rewrite.
Writer: John Sweden
Details: 99 pages

Instead of doing the intro on this one, I'll let Mr. Sweden do it himself!  Here was his e-mail to me about why I should read his script: "One year ago in the talkback for my hilariously offensive script "Orbitals" some kind commenter suggested that the concept would be perfect for a PG-rated Disney summer blockbuster. I replied that I'd actually pay to see such a big budget version of my story. "Why don't you write it yourself? -- asked the commenter. -- This way you won't have to pay -- you'll see it at the premiere!" So I spent a year researching, writing and re-writing my own brand of a summer sci-fi adventure movie: as realistic, action-packed and -- most of all -- human a story as I could possibly imagine. I think it would be fairly interesting to do an anniversary Friday -- a sort of "a year in life of an amateur screenwriter" thing."

Okay then John, let's see how you did!

Orbitals 2: Orbital War, begins by taking us through many centuries until we get to modern day, which in this story is the year 3000 (I think - more on this in a moment).  During all that time, mankind has sent a ton of satellites and space stations up into space, creating many rings of debris around the planet, similar to Saturn.

There also appears to be a war or two going on.  The first war is happening down on earth (I think - more on this in a moment) between...well, I'll be honest, I'm not sure who it's between.  But there's definitely some sort of war going on!  Actually, that's not true.  I'm not sure there's a war going on.  But there are people firing weapons at each other.  That I can tell you with certainty.  I think.  No, I know.  Yeah, I know that for sure.  I think.

So in one of these warring factions/teams is some sort of orphanage - I think.  I say "I think" because I couldn't figure out why any army would also carry with them a bunch of orphans.  Anyway, in that orphanage is a 13 year old girl named Haley, who's had a rough life, as indicated by the huge scar on her face.  When the bad guys (I'm assuming they're bad since the orphanage army has to be good, right?) successfully take down Orphanage Army, two soldiers, Jonathan and his beautiful wife Stellar, light up when they find Haley amongst the wreckage.

That's because Jonathan and Stellar need a kid if they're to make it up to Orbital Station, which has a requirement that only full families (with children) are allowed on the premises.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you about Orbital Station!  Besides these two warring factions, there's this really evil dude up on this station who's housing...ALIENS.  Yes, he's got a couple of aliens on the ship and is using them to threaten earth, even going so far as to ignite a tidal wave that destroys San Francisco.  I'll be honest, I'm still not sure if he's affiliated with one of the factions on earth or not.  But after making his Tidal Wave point, he tells the earthlings his demands are....NOTHING.  He doesn't want anything.  I guess he just wanted to test out his cool tidal wave weapon.

Anyway, Jonathan and Stellar tell Haley she has to pretend to be their child since they want to go up to the Orbital station and blow up the aliens.  Haley shrugs her shoulders - "Sure, why not?"  It's not like she has anything better to do.  So the trio develop aliases and hop onto the next transport to Orbitsville.  Once there, their cover is blown quickly, and everyone on Orbital wants them dead.....I think.

Okay, John did address one of my main concerns.  His previous script felt like it was whipped up in 3 days after a Reno bender.  This script, however, is bursting with effort.  Remember, readers can tell when a writer isn't putting in the effort.  In these cases, your script isn't a script.  It's Al Qaeda.  And we will do everything in our power to rip it to shreds.  Never EVER waste a reader's time.

The problem with John's rewrite is, a lot of this effort is misguided, starting with a really confusing plot.  I mean right from the outset, I was confused.  We start out in the year 2020.  5 paragraphs later we're in 2312.  Five paragraphs later we're in 2750.  And five paragraphs after that, we're in the year 3000.

Now there's no rule that says you can't jump through time in your screenplay.  But John doesn't prepare us for this.  He never informed us that this was going to be a montage.  So we're just sort of watching these huge chunks of time go by without understanding why.

This is followed by an introduction to a group of characters known as the Archangels.  Cool name.  But what the hell are they?  It's not clear what their place in the story is.  I actually thought they were like the stars at the beginning of It's A Wonderful Life, since they start telling us a story.  The story appears to be about the long ago past.  However, later in the script, we're told that we're still in the year 3000.  Very confusing.

From there, we're all of a sudden thrown into this desert with someone named Gareth.  Gareth and his team are preparing to attack an army - drones of some sort (I think).  But we're just thrust into it with no explanation of what's going on.  Who's Gareth?  Why's he talking to a 13 year old girl?  Why are they in a desert fighting a drone army?  What is the objective here?  Who's trying to attack what and why?  What do orphans have to do with any of this?

It's just really damn confusing.  I mean we've started out with three segments here - A thousand year montage, an introduction to a strange unexplained group, and a random desert attack.  As if that's not enough, we then get the president of the Orbital Station destroying San Francisco, claiming he has aliens, then telling the Earth that he has no demands.  So he just wanted to blow something up and brag that he had aliens???  What's going on???

There are two mistakes here and they're mistakes I see a lot of beginners make.  Plot complexity and writing clarity.  Sometimes writers simply over-plot their story.  Here we have a thousand years going by.  Some sort of war on earth.  Archangels.  An Orbital Station Maniac.  Aliens.  A military couple who wants to blow up the station but can't do so without kidnapping an orphan and pretending she's their daughter.  It just feels like too much.

Then there's clarity.  John consistently keeps key information from us.  He doesn't explain why the Orbital Leader destroys San Francisco.  He doesn't explain why he doesn't have demands afterwards.  He doesn't explain why we're in the desert in the middle of a war.  He doesn't explain who the sides are.  He doesn't explain why one side has an orphanage in its possession  He doesn't explain why Haley appears to be special within this orphanage.  He doesn't even explain basic logistical things well - like who's shooting at what.  For example, there's this big turret gun featured at the beginning of the desert battle.  But I have no idea whose it is or what it's shooting at.

Both of these issues are big, but when you combine them - plot complexity AND lack of clarity - it's a script-killer.  There's no way to recover from it.  ESPECIALLY when you're writing sci-fi, which requires a lot more from the reader, since they also have to learn your world and memorize the rules and characters that govern it.  So it's like a trifecta of script-destroying.  And unfortunately that means everything that comes after it - good or bad - is irrelevant.  We can talk about how good Scene 45 was, but what does it matter if we already checked out in Scene 5?

Having said that, this script *is* better than John's earlier effort.  You can tell right away that he's put a ton more effort into it.  It's unfortunate the story is so murky, to be honest, because the universe itself is extensively detailed and pain-stakingly explored.  John didn't come up with this on a Saturday night after smoking a pound of weed.  He really pushed himself.

But that's the shitty reality about writing sci-fi (or fantasy).  And it's a mistake I see writers make all the time - particularly advanced beginners for some reason.  You can create an amazingly detailed Star Wars or Lord Of The Rings-like universe.  But if the story sucks or is confusing, it doesn't matter one iota.  I don't care if you know the history of Planet Nebular down to the year of the last ice age if the whole time I'm scratching my head going, "Uhhhh, why the fuck are we on this planet again??"

So I think John's learned a valuable lesson.  He's learned how much effort it takes to write a screenplay.   Which is important, because some writers never learn that lesson and keep scribbling out half-assed "final" drafts.  But there are still some huge lessons he must take from this.  Don't make your plot any more complicated than it has to be - especially sci-fi plots, since you're already asking a ton of your reader.  Remember, Star Wars, at its core, has a very simple plot.  Bad guys chase good guys.

And then, of course, John must learn the value of clarity.  Stop worrying so much about writing the perfect poetic sentence.  Instead, just convey what's going on and why it's going on as clearly as possible.  I don't care about the way the asteroid vessel gleams in the distant sunlight if I don't have the slightest clue why the hell we're focusing on an asteroid vessel in the first place.

This skill unfortunately takes many scripts to master.  It takes most beginning screenwriters forever just to realize they're not conveying themselves clearly.  There's a difference between the scene in your head and the scene that's written.  You must master the language which allows your reader to not only see what you're seeing, but understand what you're saying.  One of the best ways to speed this process along is to give your script to a good friend and go through it afterwards, asking them what made sense and what didn't.  You'll start to see patterns in where you're being unclear, lessening the chances you'll do it again.

I hate to do this to John but this script still isn't up to "wasn't for me" standards.  When, as a reader, you're not even sure what's happening half the time, that's a major problem.  So unfortunately, Orbital War still gets the dubious lowest Scriptshadow rating.

Script link: Orbital War  (p.s. If you want to get the Amateur Friday scripts early, e-mail me with subject line: "EARLY")

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

What I Learned: Clarity over poetry.  Poetic prose is something advanced beginners obsess over.  They think that if every sentence is perfectly written, the reader will fall in love with the script.  But when a writer favors this approach, it almost always comes at the expense of clarity.  A reader would rather read, "David ducks under Linda's swing and crushes her nose with a stiff elbow" than, "David's shirt echoes his acrobatic duck as the clothesline of flesh soars an inch above his head.  His shadow displays a quickness even cheetahs would envy, turning the nose of his victim into a sprinkler of crimson."  Enough already.  Just tell us what's f*cking happening!