Script analysis – What’s wrong with “Substitutes”? – Script flaws reveal writing fundamentals

Movies are a lot like professional sports. The things we notice tend to be the big plays, the brilliant scenes, the moments that make us go “wow!” But what really makes movies work is a lot like what makes sports teams successful: not the shining moments, but the fundamentals. In soccer, those fundamentals are blocking and tackling. In the movies, they come down to the basics of the character: strong desires, huge obstacles, and a deep journey that changes the character forever.

When these elements work, it’s easy to forget them. Just like it’s easy to forget those great offensive linemen who block 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 struggling to make the most of an exciting premise, take their writing to new levels, or approach a scene in a new way. Once we have learned the basics, we tend to take them for granted. And sometimes we forget that we need to practice our fundamentals, even as we strive to master the fancy stuff.

Because fundamentals tend to get lost in truly successful scripts, it can sometimes be even more valuable to analyze problematic scripts, where the fundamental errors and the problems that stem from them can be seen more clearly.

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen it yet substitutes and plan to do so, you may want to stop reading here.

Screenplay by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato substitutes is based on a truly seductive premise: new technology that allows people to fully experience the world through robotic surrogates. It asks a profound question: what if you could look exactly the way you wanted to look (ie, a man one day, a woman the next) and do what you most wanted to do, without any physical risk to yourself? How would society change? How would you bring people closer? And how would you keep them apart?

Clearly, this is a question worth exploring. However, despite its brilliant premise, as a story, substitutes it fails, mainly because the writers forget its fundamentals.

Your premise is as seductive as your main character’s journey.

As a writer, if you spend your time explaining the world of your story, you’re probably boring your audience. It doesn’t matter how interesting the world of the story may be, or how many brilliant nuances you have created. If things aren’t happening, your movie isn’t moving. This is especially true in an action movie like substitutes. Things have to happen fast. If you spend your precious pages providing information to your audience, you are virtually guaranteed to stop your story.

In successful scripts, the worlds are revealed through the actions of the main character. Contrast substitutes with movies like gattaca, The Pan’s Labyrinth or even the hit thriller by Ferris & Brancato The game and you will immediately notice the difference.

These scripts immerse you in the world, treat that world as a reality, and allow you to experience it as the characters do. They don’t waste time “telling” the audience what the world is like. Instead, they slowly but surely reveal the rules of the world as the character pursues what he wants against incredible odds.

The tremendous obstacles the world creates for the character reveal his nature in a visceral way, forcing the audience to imagine themselves within the world, while encouraging the main character to triumph over his obstacles.

On the other hand, when you simply spoon-feed the world as information, as substitutes try to do, you achieve the exact opposite. Without a visceral bond for the audience to connect with, the film starts to feel like school. Before long, even the potentially most interesting details are reduced to a litany of boring information. The audience is left twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the movie to start; once you’ve lost them, it’s hard to get them back.

It forces your character to change profoundly.

Bruce Willis plays Tom Greer, the only person (in society at large) who doesn’t like the idea of ​​surrogates because he feels they cut him off from the real connections that make life worth living. At the beginning of the movie, he reluctantly uses his surrogate in his job as an FBI agent, but really just wants to connect person-to-person with his wife, who only wants to interact through the surrogate. of the.

When a terrible weapon emerges that can kill people while they’re on their surrogates, Tom Greer is forced to go on a journey, through which he discovers…drum roll, please…that surrogates separate people from the real connections that make life worth living.

Do you see the problem?

Tom has already been through his journey before the movie begins. This leaves him with nowhere to go as the story unfolds. He doesn’t NEED the story to happen to him, because he already sees the surrogates for what they are. This robs every action you take of any real meaning, we’re left with smoke and mirrors, the “exciting” external plot twists taped together without a visceral journey to support them.

Imagine if the action of the story forced Tom to be seduced into the world of surrogate mothers he once rejected, so that despite his expectations at the beginning of the movie, letting go of his surrogate mother would be the hardest thing. Tom had ever done in his life.

Imagine if Tom felt a deep connection to his surrogates, and the action of the story forced him to realize what they were really doing to him and his family, and then make a choice between the danger of the connection and the safety of the game. isolation.

Imagine if Tom’s wife was the main character, desperately needing to live through her surrogate to avoid dealing with their son’s death, and was tested in the same way Tom was, having to deal with life outside of his substitute.

When the characters don’t change, the stories don’t move. And when stories don’t move, audiences don’t move.

Make it hard. And then make it MORE DIFFICULT.

Of course there have been movies, especially action movies, that have been successful despite the lack of profound character change. Indiana Jones confronts his fear of snakes and reconciles with the woman he wronged over the course of in search of the lost ark, but he’s still pretty much the same guy he was at the beginning of the movie. Similarly, when it comes to the third installment of the series, The Bourne UltimatumJason Bourne has already, for the most part, come to terms with his identity.

Both scripts are successful for a simple fundamental reason. The writer makes it VERY VERY HARD for the main character. Jason Bourne never stops running, running from one external obstacle to the next, and overcoming them in such unexpected and spectacular ways that it’s hard to care if he’s changing or not. Similarly, Indiana Jones is constantly faced with such fascinating and escalating challenges that there is no time to wonder about the psychology of him.

Obtain this fundamental right and you can get away with it.

Make it hard. And then make it harder.

Make it easy and you’ll get substitutesa potentially spectacular idea, which falls short because it gets seduced by its own premise, and loses track of the fundamentals that make movies work.

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