Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Screenplay Review - Epsilon

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: 100 years in the future, artificially intelligent robots begin to rebel, forcing the planet to build a world of generators that fry anything with circuitry, as its the only sure way to eradicate all robotic forces. Little do they know that a group of A.I. robots have escaped to deep space, where they are training humans to help them take back the planet.
About: This is a script from the Zombieland writers, who have ditched the horror and the humor this time around for serious sci-fi.  The script sold a couple of weeks ago.  For those who turn their noses up at writers who aren't writing A-list projects, note that co-writer Rhett Reese's first feature credit was Cruel Intentions 3, and that Reese and Wernick were doing reality TV before breaking through with Zombieland.  You gotta start at the bottom, folks, then work your way up!
Writers: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Details: 109 pages, Sept. 10, 2012 draft

Zombieland is still one of the nicest unexpected presents I've received in the past few years as a movie watcher.  The spec was a hot one but I refused to read it cause I didn't want to read yet another dumb zombie spec.  But low and behold, the thing turned out to be pretty damn awesome, a perfect mix of character, story, humor, and surprises.  That doesn't happen very often.

I have this discussion with people all the time.  That when a movie actually works, it's a minor miracle.  There are so many things out of your control, that you basically have to get lucky a dozen times over to pull the movie off.  The actors have to understand and nail the characters.  The sets need to be right (and not cheesy).  The editing needs to be perfect.  The score can't suck.  The producers can't come in and fuck things up (which they do ALL the time). It's sort of like trying to direct a circus on top of a giant moving rubber ball.  That's the reason most movies suck.  They had the right intentions going in.  But because it's so likely that a dozen things are going to get fucked along the way, they fall apart.  And Zombieland was one of those rare movies where everything fell into place.  It was one of the lucky ones.

Having said that, I do know this.  You don't even give yourself a chance to get lucky if the script isn't good.  I don't care how great of a director you are, you can't turn shit into ice cream.  Zombieland had A-grade cookie dough ice cream running through its veins.  Does Epsilon?  Or did the writers move too far away from what made them stars?

I'll say this straight out.  Epsilon had one of the wildest "wtf" first acts I've seen in awhile.  I didn't know WHAT the hell was going on.  It's 100 years in the future.  We're on a bus where a crazy dude named Adam is butchering passengers to pieces.  We're then on the space station where ANOTHER Adam is butchering astronauts to pieces.  We're then in a living room where a woman named Eve is butchering her husband to pieces.  Then we're outside the house where a worker is crawling out of a manhole, being chased by ANOTHER blood-thirsty Adam.

What the hell is going on???

Well, it turns out that in the future, we've created artificially intelligent robots that look and act like human beings, and these robots, called "Automatics," have decided to rebel.  But the problem is more far reaching than that.  Through their collective connective, buoyed by a ubiquitous wireless internet, they can communicate with and take control of everything with computer circuitry, whether it be a smart phone or a microwave.

Combined with the fact that they've learned to disguise themselves as real human beings, the governments of the planet have only one choice. They must build a series of generators that fry anything with a computer chip in it.  Yeah, they're going to be losing 150 years of progress.  But it's either that or be taken over by a robot Apocolypse.  Hmmm.  I'm picking the "bye bye progress" option.

Little do they know, however, the Automatics have been planning a contingency plan.  They dupe 30 couples into using what they think are human women to carry their babies, when in fact these women are Automatics.  Those women join a group of Adam and Eves on a rocket that sets off to a faraway space station, where they begin training these babies.

You see, since they can't go back to earth, lest they be fried, Automatics need humans to go down there first and take care of the generators.  Hence, they raise these kids into super-soldiers, ultimate fighting machines.  But to prevent any unwanted hiccups, they teach them to be just like them - emotionless.  These soldiers may be human in make-up, but they're robot in spirit.  They do not feel.  They do not want.  They do not love.  They just wait for their next command.

However, once these humans are sent back to earth to execute the key phase of the takeover, one of them, a black sheep soldier known as Epsilon, starts getting curious about his origins, as well as emotions.  Whether he succumbs to his desires and aborts the mission or stays strong and carries out his commands will be the main determinant of whether our future planet will be run by humans...or robots.

Epsilon gets a "worth the read" for the simple reason that it took a group of familiar concepts and put a unique spin on them.  We have robots taking over the world a la Terminator.  We have intense training sequences and super-human fighting, a la The Matrix.  We have the "robots" who are struggling with whether to "feel" angle that has been done dozens of times.  But it's wrapped up in a package we haven't quite seen before.

I mean, I loved the opening 15 pages.  I was seriously going "what the fuck is going on right now??" Even after the whole Adam and Eve bloodbath, we had doctors who were secretly automatons, 30 different female clones who were all 9 months pregnant, rockets being prepared to launch out into space.  I felt like I was in the middle of a snow globe being relentlessly shaken by a child with serious A.D.D.  I couldn't figure out which way was up.

The training sequence was pretty cool as well, even though it probably went ten pages too long.  One of the highlights was an intense scene where Adam and Eve were training the humans not to "want." With each one in their own cell, they'd place a glass of water on the table and flash the command "Don't drink it." on the digital display.  They would then keep the water there for 3 full days, bringing all the trainees near death, until finally allowing them to drink.  If they failed, they were shot out into the cold bleak darkness of space.  They would also have to kill animals they'd become attached to, be squeezed into a box less than 1 square foot for days on end, and worst of all, forced to fight to the death other soldiers they had befriended.

My problem with the script was what happened once they got down to earth.  I liked how Rheese and Wernick pushed the emotional component of Epsilon wanting to find out who his parents were and wanting to learn what love was (with one of the other soldiers) but neither of those threads played out in a satisfactory way.  I don't know if these subplots weren't detailed or complex enough, but I just remember thinking, after Epsilon visited his parents, "That's it??"  It was almost like the scene was squeezed in there out of necessity, not because the writers really wanted to explore it.

I see that in a lot of scripts actually - writers who know they have to have some emotional resonance in their story, so they put it in there out of necessity rather than actually wanting to explore the emotional thread.  It's almost as if they can say, "See, I have it in there!  So you can't complain."  Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.  It only works if you truly care about what's happening between the characters, inside the characters, for the characters.  You have to want to dig into those unresolved issues the same way you want to dig into an action scene.  If you don't, it never reads right.

The last third of the script is all action.  Unfortunately, action doesn't read as well on the page as it plays on the screen.  Which makes it hard to judge.  Having said that, it did feel like a lot of the uniqueness of the first half of the script had been replaced by brute action.  Still, it should make the studio happy, and no doubt it will play well in the trailers.  But it further accentuated my ultimate problem with the script, which is that I didn't connect with the characters as much as I wanted to.

In the end, though, this is too unique and too cool of a potential movie not to celebrate it.  So I say Epsilon is worth the read.

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

What I learned: This is sort of a unique "What I learned" but helpful enough to mention.  Writers will set their scenes or montages to music all the time.  They'll name the title of the song that's playing at the beginning of the sequence, then proceed to write the scene.  The problem with this is, since the music isn't actually *playing*, the reader will forget it.  So if you're really trying to set the mood of a scene through music, it's likely that mood won't stick.  In the bizarre opening sequence to Epsilon, the writers set it to Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces." As the sequence goes on, a couple of pages later, Reese and Wernick organically weave into the action description, "Patsy Cline continues to sing about things falling to pieces." It seems like a harmless line, but it immediately reminded me that the music was playing, keeping the intended cinematic effect alive.  Remember guys, the reader CAN'T HEAR music.  So if you have it playing over montages or long scenes, look for ways to subtly remind the reader that it's there.