It's Monday so it must be time for another Roger review. Today he jumps in his time machine and tackles a screenplay from the past, which, ironically, is set in the future. Bringing it full circle, I'm writing this from the present. But speaking of the future, the rest of the week should be fun as I plan to review that script with a "genius" label on the final 20 pages, a script I thought would've been a thousand times better than Bel Ami for Scriptshadow's favorite son, R_Patz, and a script for a prominent film playing at The Toronto Film Festival. For now, here's Roger...
Genre: Post-apocalyptic action-adventure.
Premise: A female courier in a plague-ridden future has to take a cure across state lines.
About: This script became notable as it sold right after the infamous 1988 Writer’s Guild strike (for $500,000 to Columbia) when studios were starved for product. Many years later it was considered one of the best unproduced screenplays in town. Heavyweights at the time Cher, and then Sharon Stone, were attached. It's apparently swamped in producer fees and Pascal has repeatedly and adamantly refused to allow it to leave Sony in turnaround.
Writer: John Raffo. Screenwriter of “The Relic” and “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”.
Eden Sinclair is the female side to the Snake Plissken and Mad Max post-apocalyptic action hero coin. But before Eden Sinclair and Neil Marshall’s “Doomsday”, there was Mary and John Raffo’s “PINCUSHION”.
America. The post-apocalyptic future. The remaining inhabitants of New York City, St. Louis and Chicago have lost the battle against “DNV 47X toxemia”.
DNV 47X toxemia is a stronger, evolved, more dangerous strain of the plague that has driven survivors to live in fortified, sanitized stalags. The ruins of Americana modified into clandestine bomb shelters, makeshift underground railroad-like stations of the post-cataclysm.
Dust-bowl wanderers try to survive in a world that’s much, much worse than any mere debilitating Depression or recession. Ordinary people are forced to play the role of brigand, of killer, of victim.
America’s highways and bi-ways have become killing grounds. A simple trip from Point A to Point B becomes a trial in a gladiatorial arena. Mutants and dwarves and assorted freaks patrol the desolate roads by gunpoint, by the razor-sharp tips of arrowheads.
It’s a dog-eat-dog-world, and if you’re brave enough to venture onto the charnel tracks you better have a fast car, your favorite shotgun, and a trusted friend to watch your back when shit gets rough.
A weapon of last resort is probably not a bad idea either, because when you’re forced off the road and the people attempting to jack you take your boomstick away, that last trick up your sleeve is gonna be the only thing between you...and life and death.
And try not to stay out of your car for too long, otherwise you might get burned.
It’s a bitch.
But The Cross is worse. Much worse. Those shitbirds that were on the road earlier, who set up an ambush to steal your vaccine? The ones you were scared of? They’re nothing. Even they run from The Cross. And if you’re smart, you will too. Because The Cross? They’re the masters of the road, and you best oblige and hide.
Because there’s a war a-brewing between The Carriers and The Cross. And The Cross is gonna do everything and anything to come out on top.
So who’s this Mary chick?
Mary’s a plague carrier. Might as well be immune. She’s alive and kickin’ it. Trying to eke out a living in a world that has little life.
Mary’s a courier.
You need to move some alcohol, some heroine, some vaccine, some toothpaste, some explosives but you’re too yellow and weak-kneed to brave the roads yourself? Mary’s the gal you want. She gets shit done, son.
Give that precious little package of yours to Mary, and she’ll make sure it gets to its destination. Her vehicle of choice? An antique station wagon she’s painted a dull black and equipped with large off-roadin’ tires. She’s even covered the rear with sheet metal and rivets. Armor like this is kinda required should The Cross ride up and stitch a line of machine-gun fire into your backside.
All this for a price of course.
Besides Tommy, her eye-patch-wearing navigator, compadre, and mentor, the only thing that matters to Mary is the dollar-sign payday that’s waiting for her at the end of each journey. Mary’s destination is currency.
Now, for Mare, there’s nothing she won’t carry. But she’s gotta play the odds, and there are places she won’t go. Only problem is, Mare’s hard up. And when a job she would normally tell to fuck off offers a solution to her financial woes, she’s forced to take it.
What’s the job?
She has 72 hours to deliver some precious cargo to Salt Late City. Big whoop, right? Wrong. To get there, Mare has to cross the Nevada Border. And no one crosses the Nevada Border except for The Cross. Last courier that tried the Border got himself killed, and since then, everyone’s developed the wisdom to stay away.
Why only 72 hours? What’s the precious cargo?
It’s a box. It’s about four feet high, two feet wide, three deep. Looks like an ordinary shipping trunk. Except this trunk is covered with valves, pipes, and scuba-like tanks.
And inside of the box is a cure for DNV 47X.
The storage life on the tank is limited, and the people waiting for the delivery can only safely hold out for 3 days.
Who’s hunting these people?
He’s known as Number One. Captain Doctor Alwin Spoor. That’s right. You guessed it. The Cross? This is the organization formerly known as The RED Cross. And they have devolved into an authoritarian terror squad.
The Cross shut down the borders, sealed off the city and state lines to non-Cross personnel. To not only stop the spread of disease, but to cut off the free market and freeze out all the other medical groups. They starved out everyone who refused to live under the Cross’ iron fist.
Number One is after Charles Shepard, a molecular biologist, a geneticist who has developed the cure to stop the Ultraplague. Shepard’s the guy who has decided to go rogue, to cross to the other side and petition the help of the plague carries and its couriers to get his panacea to the right people.
Spoor, in true totalitarian-gestapo-commandant fashion, kinda likes the world the way it is. He enjoys being at the top of the post-apocalyptic food-chain, and he doesn’t want this to change. At all. A cure would break the manacles The Cross has cuffed society in. This cannot happen. Because well...Number One would no longer be...Number One.
What’s the cure?
It’s Pincushion. Pincushion is the child inside of the box. He’s a test-tube baby. Genetically engineered. His blood is the serum, the antidote to the plague and its manifest destruction westward.
So this story has an interesting world, an intriguing protagonist, and a cool set-up. Does it work?
It has four issues that keep it from working:
1.) Mary’s arc is underdeveloped. For her journey to have emotional resonance, this story does warrant an elegant character arc. It’s a sinner-to-saint character journey that should connect, but doesn’t. If this is connect-the-dots, we’ve got the dot at the start of the journey and the dot at the end, but we’re missing all the other dots in-between.
This is all dependent on her interaction and tortured feelings for Pincushion, and I feel like there’s not a lot of time for these two to bond. And this is a minor note, but the kid is pretty freakin’ weird. I mean, I’m not blaming him. He’s engineered after all. But he has this weird, unpleasant alien quality to him. If he were CGI he’d be afflicted with Uncanny Valley syndrome.
I think I could live with this if Mary wasn’t so much of a blank slate. Something about her seems void. One interesting character trait is that she’s illiterate. But other than being a pretty bad-ass driver and resourceful shooter, she’s kind of one-note. Two dimensional. Stilted.
There’s not much meat to these spindly, bad-ass heroine bones.
2.) There’s a jarring tangent after the mid-point where our protagonist is M.I.A. The floor is given to the villain. And it’s boring.
For the first half of the script, Mary shares a lot of the decision making with her first-mate, Tommy. And since he has more experience than her, you get the sense that she’s more of the apprentice to his mentor. And you know, we get a really good mid-point where she is forced to take control. Kinda like Ripley in Cameron’s “Aliens”, but the opportunity is wasted here.
Mary is injured and taken in by this convent/coven of crazy post-apocalyptic warrior nuns, and she’s unconscious for a lot of the time. And these are such weird, bizarre characters you become more interested in them than Mary.
And I think this is a bad decision, because this should be about Mary.
Then we get scenes of Spoor monologuing and providing us with exposition that we really don’t need. Yes, we know the kid is the cure. We don’t need a lab scene where Spoor fondles the child’s flesh and terrorizes the nuns with verbose threats. Unnecessary exposition is death. There’s absolutely no need for it. Slows the story to a halt.
3.) It lacks rising action. If your most suspenseful action sequence is in the first 10 pages of the script, man do you have problems. And it’s a great 10 pages! But every single action sequence in this is a chase, for the most part. And every single chase is Mary trying to escape Number One’s massive Red Cross Truck that’s armed with machine rifles and an artillery battery. For an action movie, the lack of rising action is death to your movie.
In a movie like this, what we’re basically waiting for is the big fuckin’ Road Warrior sequence that’s going to blow the top of our skulls off. But no, we’re treated to something we saw in Act 1 and Act 2. There’s no incremental build-up to the action sequences. I mean, actions sequences are basically mini-movies and mini-acts in themselves. Each one should be bigger and better than the last, right? Or at least more interesting with higher stakes than the sequence that came before it.
Pace yourself and --
Up the stakes, up the stakes, up the stakes.
4.) It does not earn its ending. The ending is great. With this one scene, we get everything that this story is about. It has an emotional wallop to it that I kind of adore. It’s harsh, poignant. Imagine being on a clean-up crew after someone is martyred. And all of your co-workers are a hardened lot, just doing a job. Now imagine the type of dialogue that would be said as you clean the mess up. Maybe a quick blue-collar sentiment...but life goes on and you still got a job to do.
It’s sad, but great at the same time.
Except, because of the reasons above, the story does not earn this moment.
Now, I know Jeb Stuart rewrote this thing back in the day, and I’m really interested to see what he did with the story, because despite its similarities to “Mad Max”, “Escape from New York”, and “Doomsday”, I still think the script can be fixed. And when it is, it has all the ingredients to be an awesome flick.
Hell, I’d be the first in line at the theater.
A final aside, this script reminded me a bit of Kurt Wimmer’s “Ultraviolet”. Which begs the question, I wonder how many working filmmakers today have read this script and are influenced by it?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I Learned: Mid-points. Read a David Mamet interview and I’ll bet he’ll say something like, “Anyone can write a 1st Act.” Inferring that Act 2 is the true challenge. Having a great mid-point can really glue a story together. Especially when it is seamless. And most great mid-points are reversals of some kind. When I read scripts, I’m always really curious to see what the mid-point is going to be. It’s like a game for me. And this script has a great one. It’s emotional. It shakes the story to its core. So much so that you can’t wait to see what happens next. Even if you can predict what the mid-point is going to be, the good ones always seem to be surprising. Something that makes you say, “I can’t believe they really went there! I didn’t want it to happen, but I’m glad it did because it makes the story better.” It’s narrative harmony.