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Script Analysis – What’s Wrong With "Surrogates?" – Screenplay Flaws Reveal Writing Fundamentals
Movies are like professional sports. The things we notice include the big plays, the flashy visuals, the “Wow!” There are telling moments. But what really makes movies work is like what makes sports teams successful: the basics, not the flashy moments. In football, those fundamentals are blocking and tackling. In the movies, they get down to the basics of the character: strong desire, overwhelming obstacles, and a profound journey that changes the character forever.
When these factors are at work, it’s easy to forget them. It’s easy to forget about those big ol’ offensive linemen blocking for the quarterback. But when they break, bad things happen. And suddenly you have big problems.
Like professional athletes, even the best writers can lose sight of their fundamentals, especially when they’re trying to make the most of an exciting situation, push their writing to new levels, or approach a scene in a new way. Once we know the basics, we take them for granted. And sometimes we forget that we need to practice our basics even as we try to master the fancy stuff.
Because fundamentals tend to go unnoticed in truly successful screenplays, it can sometimes be more valuable to analyze problematic scripts, where fundamental mistakes and the resulting problems can be seen more clearly.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen it yet Surrogates And you may want to stop reading here.
Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato’s script Surrogates A truly fascinating environment has been built: a new technology that allows people to experience the entire world through robotic surrogates. It begs a profound question: What if you could look the way you want to look (ie one day a man, then a woman) and do whatever you want to do without putting yourself at any physical risk. How will it change the society? How will it bring people together? And how does that set them apart?
Clearly, this is a question worth exploring. Yet, as a story, despite its brilliant premise, Surrogates falls flat, mostly because the writers forget their basics.
Your surroundings are as charming as your main character’s journey.
As a writer, if you’re spending your time explaining your story world, you’re probably boring your audience. It doesn’t matter how interesting the story world may be or how many brilliant nuances you’ve created. If things aren’t happening, your movie isn’t moving. This is especially true of action movies Surrogates. Things have to happen quickly. If you’re spending your precious pages informing your audience, you’re sure to stop grinding your story.
In successful scripts, the world is revealed through the actions of the main character. Contrast Surrogates With movies like of the gut, Pan’s Labyrinth Or even Ferris and Brancato’s own wildly successful thriller the game And you will see the difference immediately.
These scripts bring you into the world, make that world real, and let you feel it as the characters do. They don’t waste time “telling” the audience how the world is. Instead, slowly but surely, they reveal the rules of the world as the character pursues what he or she wants against incredible odds.
The enormous obstacles that the world creates for this character visually reveal his appearance, forcing the audience to imagine themselves in the world, as they root for the main character to overcome his obstacles.
On the other hand, when you just spoon-feed the world information, like Surrogates If you try, you achieve the exact opposite. With no link to connect the audience, the film starts to feel like school. Before long, even potentially interesting details are reduced to a litany of boring information. The audience keeps twiddling their thumbs while waiting for the movie to start; Once you lose it, it’s hard to get it back.
Force your character to change in profound ways.
Bruce Willis plays Tom Greer, a man (in mainstream society) who hates the idea of a surrogate because he feels They cut him off from the real relationships that make life worthwhile. At the beginning of the film, he politely uses his surrogate in his job as an FBI agent, but he really wants to connect person-to-person with his wife, who only wants to communicate through her surrogate.
When a terrible weapon is discovered that can kill people while they’re in their surrogates, it forces Tom Greer on a journey through which he discovers…drumroll please…that Surrogates cut people off from the real connections that make life worthwhile.
See the problem?
Tom has gone through his journey before the movie even starts. This leaves him nowhere to go as the story unfolds. He doesn’t need a story to happen to him, because he already sees surrogates for what they are. This robs every action he takes of any real meaning—we’re left with smoke and mirrors—no internal journey to support the “exciting” external plot duck-tape twists.
Imagine that the action of the story forces Tom to be seduced by the world of surrogates that he once rejected, so that despite his expectations at the beginning of the film, letting go of his surrogate will be the hardest thing Tom has to do.
Imagine that Tom feels a deep connection to his surrogates and the action of the story forces him to understand what they are doing to him and his family and then decide between the risk of connection and the safety of isolation.
Imagine that Tom’s wife was the main character—desperately needing to live through her surrogate to avoid having to deal with the death of her son—and Tom’s having to deal with life outside of her surrogate is similarly tested.
When characters don’t change, stories don’t move. And when stories aren’t moving, audiences aren’t moved by them.
Make it hard. And then make it harder.
There are certainly movies, especially action movies, that succeed without profound character changes. Indiana Jones confronts his fear of snakes and reconciles with the woman he wronged Rodgers of the Lost Ark, but he’s still the same guy he was at the beginning of the movie. Likewise, until the third installment of the series, The Bourne UltimatumJason Bourne has already, for the most part, come to terms with his identity.
Both of these scripts succeed for a simple basic reason. The author makes it really difficult for the main character. Jason Bourne never stops running—running from one outdoor obstacle to another—and overcoming them in such unexpected and spectacular ways, it’s hard to care if he’s changing. Likewise, with Indiana Jones constantly facing such fascinating and mounting challenges, there’s no time to wonder about his psychology.
Get this basic right and you can overcome a lot.
make it hard And then make it harder.
Keep it simple and you’ll get it SurrogatesA potentially spectacular idea, one that falls short because it gets seduced by its own premise, and loses track of the fundamentals that make movies work.
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