Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Screenplay Review - Wunderkind

Genre: Thriller
Premise: In 1973, a CIA agent searches for an infamous Nazi wunderkind who spearheaded Hitler's nuclear technology push during the war.  
About: This one sold to Paramount for JJ Abrams's company, Bad Robot, last week I think?  Although Aison has been toiling around in Hollywood for the better part of a decade, this is his breakthrough screenplay.
Writer: Patrick Aison
Details: 118 pages


That's the first word that comes to mind when finishing Wunderkind.  It took me half the script before I understood what kind of movie it was.  It took me 40 pages before I understood the general direction in which the story was going.  There are tonal shifts throughout.  There are story shifts throughout.  In general, it has a great big "figure it out as I go along" feel to it.  

That's not to say there isn't a movie here.  Chasing Nazis has proved its value at the box office.  I feel the South American Nazi network hasn't been taken nearly enough advantage of as a story device.  And there were moments where it felt like Wunderkind was ready to take off.  

But just as the plane was ready to lift into the air, the pilot always chose to abort.  It was one big tease.  I was ready for my week-long dream trip to Puerto Vallarta.  But I never made it into the air.

Wunderkind starts out focusing on a 23 year-old wunderkind named Julius Heinrich.  Heinrich was handpicked by Hitler himself to spearhead his rocket/nuke program, to the dismay of the program's longtime members.  But, of course, the war ended before Heinrich could really get his talons into the program and blow up the rest of the world so Hitler could become leader of the universe.  

Now because things aren't really clear here, it was tough to keep up, but in my best estimate, after a few 40s flashbacks, we cut to 1973 where we meet young CIA agent Sam Brauer.  Sam is down in Brazil looking for an old Nazi officer because that officer (I think) knows where the wunderkind is.  And as we find out much much later (which was part of the problem - I couldn't figure out who they were after or why - that info was gleaned much much later in the story), the wunderkind could potentially sell his wunderkind-like secrets to the Russians, who the Americans, of course, are in a Cold War with.

Anyway, before Sam can get to this officer, a badass Mossad (Isralei special forces) agent named Ari kills him.  But here's the big twist.  Ari is Sam's estranged father!  Well, after Sam goes back to his bosses and bitches about the red tape that allowed Ari to get a jump on the Nazi before he did, the CIA reveals that they actually know where the wunderkind is (and did all along??) and now, since he's officially gone rogue, need Sam to find and stop him.

But there's a twist!  They need him to work with someone who has the intelligence to keep up with this guy.  Who is that person?  Why Ari, of course!  Sam's father!  So Sam and Ari, who hate each other more than Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnel, must team up and find the Wunderkind before he sells himself and his trade secrets to the Russians.  

Oh boy.  I mean...I don't know what to say here besides I wish this weren't so messy.  First off, the script takes forever to get going.  It starts and stops a number of times (we're in a 1942 Nazi Rocket program, we're in a concentration camp, we're in 1973 looking for a former Nazi officer, we're teaming up two unlikely agents for a Lethal Weapon type buddy action film), and just never seems to decide what it wants to be.  

What is the point, for example, of the concentration camp sequence?  Particularly since nothing interesting happens during it?  It just seems to be there to let you know that Ari was in a concentration camp.  Okay, fine.  But instead of wasting 8 pages on that, can't you just show the tattooed number on his arm in 1973?  Then we'll know he was a prisoner.  That takes 8 characters instead of 8 pages.

The next mistake is the buddy action angle.  As soon as Ari began making jokes about how big his penis was, I was like, "Okay, seriously???"  I mean, is that really the appropriate tone for a movie about chasing Nazis?  They didn't even stoop that low in Lethal Weapon, a movie, by the way, that was tonally much more appropriate for two bickering partners.  

On top of that, it wasn't clear what the good guys were trying to stop!  Why did they want to catch the wunderkind?  Apparently, he was going to sell his secrets to the Russians.  Ummmm, if it's 1973, I'm pretty sure the Russians already had a stockpile of a couple thousand nukes.  What else was Heinrich going to offer them?  The good-luck stein that Hitler used to drink his nightly Heineken in?  

Finally, things just weren't very well explained.  For example, early on, Sam approaches someone in Brazil about Foltern, the original Nazi he was looking for.  He tells the man that Foltern is either his father or knows his father, which is why he's trying to find him.  It wasn't clear which one.  But then it turns out neither one was true.  An agent from an entirely separate organization was Sam's father.  Did that mean Sam was lying to that person in order to get him to help him?  I'm still not sure but this lack of clarity plagued the entire script.

Whenever you write something with an intricate plot you have to comb through the thing and make sure that EVERY. SINGLE. PLOT POINT. Is clear.  If you slack off for even a single scene, you might throw something in there that completely sends your reader off on the wrong track.  

Using the above example, it might make sense to YOU that your hero would lie to this man and say the guy he's looking for is related to his dad.  But if that's just a lie to get him to talk and isn't actually true, and then a Mossad agent is your hero's REAL father, who also happens to be searching for the same man and trying to kill him - can you see how that might be really f*cking confusing for someone reading the script for the first time?

Anyway, I think this puppy needs five or six more rewrites before it's where it needs to be.  In its current state, it's just not there.

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

What I learned: Ticking time bombs and STAKES are the staples of any good thriller.  If they're unclear or weak, you don't have a thriller.