Monday, October 21, 2013


The universe appreciates gravity.

Humans, less so.

I wanted to love GRAVITY.  And there were moments and long minutes when the special effects and the human effects left me smitten.  There is elegance and such magnificent beauty involving Sandra Bullock in her spacesuit, doing the dreary plug-in and boot-up and hope for success work from the hardware.  This is the dullest lab work, plus a view worth billions.  And later, when Sandra is stripped of the suit, floating exhausted in zero-gee...that moment struck me as perfect.  I didn't want it to end.  But for a movie based on silence, there was a terrible amount of motion serving the modern role of roaring, senseless noise.  Some of the scientific snafus were obvious to me.  Some I learned about later.  And then there's the matter of big objects moving together in low-orbit flight.  That doesn't constitute a scientific mistake, perhaps.  No, the mistake was inserting contrivances in an effort to build some story that people will "Relate to."

(People don't need much excuse to relate to a character.  There's a great little moment in the television series COMMUNITY when the curmudgeon/lawyer Jeff shows everybody a pencil.   Then he names the pencil. Let's say he names the pencil Larry, and then he callously breaks Larry in two, and everybody at the table grieves.  And hell, I was sitting at home, feeling horrible sorry for poor Larry.)

My point is that playing with science and orbits might be necessary, sure.  But what I take from this isn't wagging my finger at mistakes, no. It's the lost chance to use what is real and building a better, more dramatic story.

To my knowledge, space debris doesn't fly past at sports car speeds.  GRAVITY depends on the colliding orbits, and it is possible to end up with relatively slow collisions.  But that is unlikely.  Sandra Bullock is moving 17,000 miles an hour, which is far faster than a bullet shot by a bullet that is shot by a bullet.  The same speeds are being achieved by every mindless shard of metal and plastic.  They plunge at her from some other piece of the sky.  Seeing their arrival is unlikely.  Maybe a flash of reflected sunlight now and again, but no tumbling object is visible.  Certainly nothing possessing shape and color.  Nothing will happen, and then the wrench in Sandra's hand will be gone from her hand.  No sound.  No sense of oncoming menace.  And that same magnificent, capricious violence will happen to an astronaut's face, and the shuttle will be pierced and pierced again, as if by a furious, invisible demon.  Space debris is a demon, amoral and relentless.  How could that be anyway but dramatic?

The ninety minute clock is contrived.  I don't think the two orbits would marry up like the gears in a perfectly aligned clock.  Directors and other souls trained in movie classes like the ticking clock, but this device isn't used that effectively in the movie, if only because nobody bothers to look at the time every few minutes, which is what I would damn well do.

A better ploy might be to embrace the demon.  The worst possible collision spreads chaos across the sky.  This is not impossible. If space is full of debris, and if collisions continue to make new terrors, then you don't know when the next assault begins, or how long it will last, or if any pause is a genuine peace or just the demon having fun with with your terror.

Space is the ultimate suburbia.  Space stations and telescopes aren't stacked up in the sky like they are in GRAVITY.  There are many fine reasons for this, including differing launch requirements and the lack of good reasons to travel in flocks.  But there might be worthy reasons someday, which is why I vote for a modestly futuristic story.  Of course movie people like the feeling of "modern" tales.  They think that audiences relate to the present day more easily.  Which is why we see an extinct space shuttle--good old 1970s technology bringing back reliable emotions.

I recently wrote a screenplay based on one of my works.  Like the source material, the script has to have an impossible, futuristic machine ripping holes in our universe.  And for good story reasons, I thought the machine should speak with a woman's voice.  But I was told that no, the director wanted to keep the story rooted in the present.  So I asked, "What kind of phone do you use?"  An I-phone, he said.  Which implies that he talks to Siri more often than almost anyone else in his life.  And that brings up one fine rule of movie making:  Setting your movie in the present day really means a mixture of times, and when it comes to attitudes, the story will often reflect bygone eras.

In a rewrite, I would be sorely tempted to set the movie in some sprawling city in space--factories and whatnot scattered across a few hundred miles--and the whole ugly catastrophe would start with some small blunder.

What catastrophe doesn't start small?

And gravity is mysterious.

This has nothing to do with the movie, not directly.  But I think it bears repeating, and I mean every day and maybe every waking hour.  Humans don't have a clue what gravity really is.  Yes, it seems to be everywhere, but as one of the four known forces, it is miserably weak.  The bulk of its energy might be slipping into other dimensions, which is spooky fun.  It doesn't play with the other natural laws in neat ways, which the other three do.   And just because our world and our bodies hug each other, nobody can say for certain that gravity works across eternity and over tiny gaps.

But here's another measure of our ignorance.  No computer, real or imagined, has sufficient power to perfectly model every gravity-mediated motion in a universe.  And even calculating the orbits of just three bodies involves a lot of approximations and subtle sleight-of-hands.

Which is movie making, by all means.  Approximations and sleight-of-hands.

By the way, I loved the last scene of GRAVITY, too.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Iron Man Last

I don't rewrite the books that I read.  Not even novels.  I might like this part of the story, or that character is too stock or too dull.  This twist works, and all of that is drivel, and sometimes the author is too brilliant/obscure for me.  (Which says something, since Faulkner and Tolstoy are among my favorites.)  But to sit down and contemplate where the story left the rails, and how I would fix the wreck...well, I don't do that very often or with much heart.

Movies are another business.

Reading means that I can stage the events inside my head, serving as the director working with good material and bad.  How can you hate what you spent twenty hours reading?

Movies are brief and bright, entering the brain fully formed.

My daughter and I just finished rewatching THE AVENGERS.  We own the blue-ray, but I saw that Loki and the gang were appearing on Netflix, which is so much easier than dealing with a scratchable disk and losing your place over the next three days.  I enjoyed the movie in the theater, in 3D, and it hasn't aged too badly.  There's a formula to follow.  The 15,000 names at the end of the movie worked hard and spent tons of other people's money, and they got a lot out of the formula, nobody distracted by anything new.  Why a super-advanced species of warriors would allow themselves to be taken out by nuke...well, that's one of Hollywood's favorite cliches.  But still, I like the banter, and the Banner.

My daughter likes Ironman.

My daughter is eleven.  Maybe it's Tony's drinking and womanizing that appeals to her.  More likely, it's the charming Bob playing the title role.  And the action too.  Since she was two, my girl has shown a considerable fondness for fists and measured gore.

She and I went to Ironman 3 in the theater.

And this is one of those movies that begs the audience for a rewrite.

Ben Kingsley.  Fine actor.  And he inhabits a half-interesting character.  The twerpy drunk actor playing a role.  The real bad guy is younger and more handsome, and far more boring, and that's why he hires a face and voice to make the world pay attention.

At least that's the way it looked to me.

There isn't a lot of drama here.  The millions of dollars make noise, but the formula is applied inefficiently, the products far from clinical grade.

So let's say the studio realizes the problem and comes to me.  (Not the most likely story twist, I will admit.)  They come to me and say, "Give us your best shot, Bob."

Here it is:

Start the movie with what looks like the final fight sequence.  And by that, I mean the handsome, boring bad guy and his minions are waging war against Ironman and the newly empowered Pepper.  No deep explanations or back story is necessary.  Audiences can piece together their own logic from the clues.  Really, everything on the screen is totally familiar.  Start with a war.

One big change is that in my script, no set of contingencies allows a platoon of computer-run Ironmen.  Villains have minions, which is fine.  But Tony can't just crack open his toy box and fling out more plastic soldiers than his opponent.  That's diluting the formula.  That defeats the whole idea of a hero standing tall.  Of course a true arms manufacturer would go into mass production about two minutes after the first successful test flight.  But if we're concerned about that bit of logical weirdness, then we aren't lasting long at the important meetings with Hollywood suits.

Anyway, in my script the big battle ends with one dead bad guy and Pepper endowed with superpowers.

My point is:  Stark and Pepper are a great couple, and they deserve a movie full of witty banter and tensions and such.  And they definitely deserve more of a story than some noise stapled to end of the story about Tony curing his woman's hot flashes.

So, go back to the first, best incarnation of the three movies.  It's easy to complain that no man, genius or not, could cobble together a workable Ironman suit in a cave.  But assume that it is possible.  That implies that the suit can't be that hard to build to a ten percent measure.  By that, I mean that a man with vision could use scrap titanium and one-day output of Foxconn to build a division of armored flying soldiers.  Ben Kingsley has been hired to work the movie.  Use him as the leader.  Put him in some fictional form of Pakistan.  And then put on a real war where the flying soldiers are to us what the hoplites were to the Persians:  Well-trained troops who alone would be cut down, but in formation would be unbeatable.

The hoplites grab the Pakistani nukes.

Cities burn.

And then force Tony Stark to come up with some compelling heroic fix.  In other words, stopping the nukes where the alien opponents in THE AVENGERS couldn't.

And Pepper becomes an effective superhero in her own right.  

My daughter would approve of that, I'm sure.

Friday, June 21, 2013


Most of my movie consumption comes months and years after the title's release.  But I am planning to see WORLD WAR Z in the next few days, and since there's no drumming up allies in my household, I'm going to this battle alone.  Which is one spectacular reason that I see few movies in the theater.  Nobody wants to join me.  My innate cheapness and freeing up suitable blocks of time are other fine excuses.  But now why Z?  Because the family that won't be going to the film saw the trailer a few months, and my daughter, age 11, put on a big-eyed face, saying, "I don't know whether to be amazed or appalled."

I expect both responses from myself.  But this post isn't about Z.

Tonight, after managing several smaller bites, I finished eating PROMETHEUS.  On my Nook HD+.  Only a year after it was released.  I went in expecting science written by liberal arts majors--you know, numbers that have no reality, except that they really sound big, and that stubborn inability to learn the subtle differences between stars and galaxies.  But I was wrong, I realized.  Apparently the liberal arts can be too clinical for the best minds.  Freed of the onerous duties of plot and character, cause and effect, a truly talented screenwriter can jettison many disciplines, and discipline itself, and most every urge to entertain, it seems.

So much money.  A real spaceship could be launched for the budget blazing across the screen.  And such a very clean starship too.  

But of course, a real starship would be a star or galaxy more interesting.

I could grouse about vague plot devices, including a sickly old man surviving cold storage, all in some grand mission fueled by visually uninteresting cave paintings.  (I've seen films about better paintings from real French caves, including some miraculous horses that have been running in the darkness for 40,000 years.)  And because studios and film are deeply self-referential, they have to let other movies intrude.  The parallels with 2001 are many and badly rendered.  And why bring in several lines from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA?  Does the anemic native dialogue need to get mocked by something smart and lasting?

The acting?  Nice.  Fine.  I don't have problems with anyone but the old guy.  A trillion dollars to spend, and they insisted on burying him inside putty, which has never, ever made anyone look old.  Hire an old guy, sure.  But I figured he was going to be made young again...and apparently he was, in an earlier, discarded draft.

I'm going to focus on one piece of PROMETHEUS that made me squirm:  There are two robots.  David is the mechanical, less obvious robot.  And then there's Meredith, who has blood inside her.  I think.  But she is so much like a robot that the captain, Janek, asks if that's what she is.  And to prove she isn't, she has some off-screen sex with him.  (Popular culture likes its robots cold and nonsexual--too elements that could be programmed out of them by any IT guy.)  Anyway, it's reveal late that the old guy is her father, and we always knew that the old man was David's builder, and this is one of those common traits of bad/lazy writing.  The big "reveals" come too late, and they are used in place of drama.  Real drama could have flourished in the borders of one cranky, wealthy family.  But just when clan is defined, there's nothing left in the budget or timetable but some obligatory alien-going-berserk nonsense.

Forty years from now, a talented robot/author/light-dancer will acquire the rights to PROMETHEUS and start over.

Start with Janek.  My advice?  If you can get the rights to Idris Elba's face and voice, do that.  He's a great presence.  Then begin the story with that captain and some plucky crew--robots and cyborgs mostly.

In forty years, robots and cyborgs will be in charge of us all, and they'll be the paying audience too.

Really, even if they never prove to be imaginative creations, they'll at least be really good at dropping in deft, self-referential tidbits.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


The hero and his gal sit together in a late-night cafe.  Shit has happened, and a lot more shit is bearing down on them.  But this is a quiet moment laced with more introspection than you expect in an action movie.  The hero is lost and knows it, but he has retained enough sense to appreciate the wicked weirdness of his predicament.  He doesn't know his name or origin.  He doesn't know why he's so damned pretty. But he has every exit spotted and remembers the license number to each car in the parking lot, and there could be a gun in the glove box of that one truck, and there's a fellow at the counter who looks like he could handle himself in a fight.  And now, he asks, who in the world thinks this way?

I haven't watched the scene for a couple, three years.  Details are probably wrong.  But I've enjoyed THE BOURNE IDENTITY maybe four times through, caught random pieces on cable television, and I've replayed that single scene many more times.  It is a linchpin--everything you need to know contained in dialogue and coffee and anxious silence.  Tony Gilroy is credited as the screenwriter, and I've seen exactly one interview with Mr. Gilroy.  In it, he admits that he didn't know how to write the Bourne character...right up until that scene came out of him.  Which makes it a pivotal moment for two writers:  The screenwriter who got a paycheck, and the mid-list science fiction author who can feel smug about his own instincts.

This is a blog where an author does what is natural, which is rewriting everything that he sees.

I had great hopes for THE BOURNE LEGACY.  My ten year-old daughter had similar hopes.  She liked the noise and chases and such, and I was all right with the package until I found a quiet place with coffee.  There's no linchpin scene to the effort.  I like Jeremy Renner well enough.  But I keep thinking that Gilroy and the money behind the story felt that the only way to make the movie work was to introduce the one agent who could take Jason Bourne in a fair fight.

Every author makes that same wrong turn, particularly when dealing with sequels and series.  I am as guilty as the next.  The instinct is for the new character to be faster and bigger, or at least let him sport a bigger gun.  In my rewrite, which is nothing but a between-the-ears sketch, Mr. Legacy is the opposite of Jason B.  He's one of those dudes who didn't excel at his training, probably because of some instructive flaw.  You know, like maybe the guy looked at the situation and said, "Jesus, shit, I don't want to kill fucking strangers for a living."  So he washed out, or maybe Mr. Legacy is part of the Reserves, living in obscurity in Canton, Ohio.  Whatever his story, we have a half-Jason struggling against the same long odds when the overlords come to kill him, and saving himself requires a different set of talents, and I haven't gotten any farther than that.

Maybe I need a poignant scene set in the airport Applebee's.

He's a waiter and has two cats at home.

Well, that probably needs to be changed.  Not the cats, which are winners, but Mr. Legacy's job.

He's managing the Applebee's, and corporate absolutely loves his bearing and intensity.  As the movie opens, our hero sits in the booth with one of the corporate suits--a good looking woman in her still-fertile thirties--and he's talking about keeping his weight down when he eats nothing but fried this and fried that...and that's when the assassins pull up to the door.

Anyway, this what I do.  Day after night, everything that I see gets rewritten.