Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Alien Choices

by Tanya Klein

It seems to be time for one of my once-every-few-months soap-box rants. In other words, I’ve come to the point – again – where just gritting my teeth at writers phoning it in isn’t enough and I have to vent. What brought it on this time? The holiday weekend. I took the radical step of taking a day off and catching a matinee of ALIEN: COVENANT. Considering the more-than-decent reviews it received, I was really looking forward to it. The good news: it’s definitely the third best of the series. The bad news: considering the overall quality of the series (I’m excepting ALIEN and ALIENS) that’s not saying much. 

We wonder if Ridley Scott ever actually saw ALIENS. It would appear not.
 The movie gets a lot of things right. Unfortunately, it also has a fatal flaw. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the movie yet. I won’t spoil anything for you. Frankly, I don’t have to, because a blind person could see the ending coming… from a million miles away… while in a coma. In fact, there’s even a scene in Act II that practically gives it away. And as soon as Act III rolls around, anyone who was holding out hope that they weren’t going to go down this hackneyed path was sorely disappointed.  

So this is what my rant is about: bad choices. Look, we all make them. And if we were aware that a choice in our script is bad, we wouldn’t be making it. Hey, that’s where script coverage comes in. We can’t see the flaws in our own material. It’s quite natural. A second set of eyes can be essential to ferreting out the problems. But that begs the question: how come a movie like ALIEN: COVENANT, which undoubtedly went through a long development process (yes, I’m hoping they’ve learned something from the debacle that was PROMETHEUS) can misstep in such a basic and near-fatal way? 

Well, there’s only one answer I could come up with: hubris. Believing the audience won’t notice or won’t care (well, the latter might be a distinct possibility). I can almost hear Ridley Scott saying: “Don’t worry, I can sell this.” And he tried mightily with some choice close-ups and even going so far as to include an (utterly false) beat of a character exhaling and seeming relieved when they shouldn’t be. It was an inexcusable, big-time cheat, and we expect better from a director like Scott.

No, he couldn’t sell it and it left a sour taste in my mouth. I had a distinct “dude, how dumb do you think we are?” reaction when leaving the movie theater. I saw some other scowling faces, which made me think so did they.  Methinks that’s not the attitude you want in your audience.

How can we avoid this in our own writing? For starters, let’s not underestimate our audience. They’ve seen every trope in existence at this point – many times. BREAKING BAD trusted that the audience was smart, and it paid off in a big way. Nowadays, much more so than in the past, we’re being bombarded from all sides. Wherever you look, there’s scripted entertainment. Not only on TV or in the movie houses, but on your tablet, your smartphone, and, heck, even in the back of a cab. Whatever we feel like watching, it’s at our fingertips to be streamed at our convenience. In other words, there’s nothing the audience hasn’t seen yet, and they can smell a trope from miles away.  So if you’re currently looking at your script and thinking, “Hmm, I wonder if they’d buy that?,” then I feel the need to point out that if you have to ask the question, then the answer is probably no.

There were also some other minor quibbles I had with ALIEN: COVENANT. Did anyone involved with this production bother watching ALIENS? The conclusions of both movies had elements so similar as to be tiresome. Or were they trying to rip off their progenitor? Possibly neither scenario is accurate. Maybe they simply didn’t care, which would point to the above-mentioned hubris. 

Moral of the story? Don’t underestimate your audience. Don't think you can "sell" the hokum. Do that extra draft and don’t settle for mediocrity. Rant end.   

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Tanya Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer/producer and a partner in Coverage Ink. 

www.coverageink.com