Script Analysis: What’s Wrong With “Surrogates”?
By Jacob Krueger
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 say “wow!” But what actually makes movies work is a lot like what makes sports teams successful: not the brilliant moments, but the fundamentals. In football, those fundamentals are blocking and tackling. In movies, they come down to the fundamentals of character: strong wants, huge obstacles, and a profound journey that changes the character forever.
When these elements are working, it’s easy to forget them. Just like it’s easy to forget those big ol’ offensive linemen blocking for the quarterback. But when they break down, bad things happen. And suddenly you’ve got big problems.
Just like professional athletes, even the best writers can lose sight of their fundamentals, especially when they’re striving to make the most out of an exciting premise, push their writing to new levels, or come at a scene in a new way. Once we’ve learned the fundamentals, 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 breeze by unnoticed in truly successful screenplays, sometimes it can be even more valuable to analyze problematic scripts, where the fundamental mistakes, and the problems that stem from them, can be seen more clearly.
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t yet seen Surrogates and plan to, you may want to stop reading here.
Michael Ferris & John D. Brancato’s script Surrogates is built around a truly seductive premise: a new technology that allows people to experience the world entirely through robotic surrogates. It asks a profound question: what would happen if you could look exactly the way you wanted to look (ie. a man one day, a woman the next), and do whatever you most wanted to do, without any physical risk to yourself. How would it change society? How would it bring people closer together? And how would it keep them apart? Clearly, this is a question worth exploring. Yet, despite its brilliant premise, as a story, Surrogates falls flat, mostly because the writers forget their fundamentals.
Your Premise is Only As Seductive As Your Main Character’s Journey.
As a writer, if you’re spending 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’ve created. If things aren’t happening, your movie isn’t moving. This is especially true of an action movie like Surrogates. Things have to happen quick. If you spend your precious pages feeding information to your audience, you’re pretty much guaranteed to bring your story grinding to a halt.
In successful scripts, worlds are revealed through the actions of the main character. Contrast Surrogates with films like Gattaca, Pan’s Labyrinth or even Ferris & Brancato’s own highly successful thriller The Game and you’ll immediately see the difference. These scripts drop you into the world, treat that world as a reality, and let you experience it as the characters do. They don’t waste time “telling” the audience what the world is like. Instead, slowly but surely, they reveal the rules of the world as the character pursues what he or she wants against incredible odds. The tremendous obstacles that the world creates for the character reveal its nature in a visceral way, compelling the audience to imagine themselves within the world, as they root for the main character to triumph over its obstacles.
On the other hand, when you simply spoon feed the world as information, as Surrogates attempts to do, you accomplish the exact opposite. With no visceral link for the audience to connect to, the movie starts to feel like school. Before long, even the most potentially interesting details are reduced to a litany of boring information. The audience is left twiddling its thumbs, waiting for the movie to start; once you’ve lost them it’s hard to get them back.
Force Your Character To Change in a Profound Way
Bruce Willis plays Tom Greer, the one person (in mainstream society) who dislikes the idea of surrogates because he feels they cut him off from real connections that make life worthwhile. At the beginning of the movie, he begrudgingly 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 her surrogate. When a terrible weapon surfaces that can cause people to die while 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 already gone through his journey before the movie starts. This leaves him with no place 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 he undertakes of any real meaning– we’re left with smoke and mirrors– “exciting” external plot twists duck-taped together with no visceral journey to support them.
Imagine if the action of the story forced Tom to become seduced by the world of the surrogates he once rejected, so that despite his expectations at the beginning of the film, letting go of his surrogate would be the hardest thing Tom had ever done. Imagine if Tom felt a profound connection to his surrogates, and the action of the story forced him to realize what they actually were doing to him and his family, and then make a decision between the danger of connection and the safety of isolation. Imagine if Tom’s wife was the main character– with her desperate need to live through her surrogate to avoid dealing with the death of her son– and was tested in the same way Tom was, by having to deal with life outside of her surrogate.
When characters don’t change, stories don’t move. And when stories don’t move, audiences aren’t moved by them.
Make it HARD. And then make it HARDER.
Of course there have been movies, especially action movies, that succeed despite the lack of a profound character change. Indiana Jones does confront his fear of snakes and reconcile with the woman he wronged over the course of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he’s still pretty much the same guy he was at the beginning of the movie. Similarly, by the time he gets to the third installment of the series, The Bourne Ultimatum, Jason Bourne has already, for the most part, come to terms with his identity.
Both of these scripts succeed for a simple fundamental reason. The writer makes it REALLY REALLY HARD for the main character. Jason Bourne never stops running– racing from one external obstacle to the next– and overcoming them in such unexpected and spectacular ways it’s hard to care if he’s changing or not. Similarly, Indiana Jones is constantly dealing with such fascinating and escalating challenges, there’s no time to wonder about his psychology. Get this fundamental right, and you can get away with a lot. Make it hard. And then make it harder. Make it easy, and you get Surrogates, a potentially spectacular idea, 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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