Premise: A 1930s expedition to Antarctica results in a slew of horrifying discoveries.
About: So in light of Del Toro recently dropping out of The Hobbit, I decided to review one of his older and more beloved scripts, At The Mountains of Madness, based off of H.P. Lovecraft’s 1931 novella. But before I do, can we all just agree that MGM shouldn’t be responsible for anything that involves money. I think I have more money in my checking account than these guys do in their entire 2010 budget. The Hobbit is going to be locked up for decades unless someone pries the property away from this black hole of a studio.
Writers: Guillermo Del Toro and Matthew Robbins
Details: 107 pages – undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film’s release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
I can’t say I peruse through 1930s literature much. These days, the only literature I have time for is entertainment blogs. Oh, and the occasional screenplay of course. As a result, I didn’t know much of anything about “At The Mountains Of Madness.” I knew Del Toro co-wrote it and that meant there’d be at least half a dozen monsters with eyes in weird places in it, but other than that, zippo. That’s not to say I don’t like Del Toro. He’s a gifted director. But I think he’s got Tim Burton syndrome, where he cares so much about his creatures and set design that he kind of forgets about the story. So as I joined this exhibition, I really had no idea if I’d enjoy it.
It’s 1939 in Tasmania when the whaling ship “The Arkham” appears seemingly out of nothingness, abandoned and barely aflaot. An inspection team finds dead bodies, mummified dogs, and one lone survivor, a crazed man named William Dyer. Dyer is adamant about keeping “them” away, whatever “them” is. He is clear that if they get out, the world will become a living hell. I hear the same threats on an average Santa Monica street corner, but something tells me Dyer’s spittin truth.
He explains to the men that nine years ago he agreed to be a part of the biggest Antarctic expedition in history. Two ships, The Arkham and The Miskatonic, would take with them the biggest portable drill in the world, two dog sledding teams, three planes, dozens of team members and thousands of pounds of food to the ice-ridden continent. Their goal? To explore the last known frontier.
The leader of this expedition, the bullyish but determined Gilman Lake, recently discovered the fossilized remains of an odd creature, a creature never before seen by man. This trip to Antarctica may finally prove where the creature originated. And, if they’re lucky, it might lead them to more of them, possibly still alive.
So after months of, you know, floating forward, they finally make it to Antarctica, and when the morning fog lifts, they’re baffled to find themselves surrounded by huge mountains. And when I say huge, I mean “dwarf Mount Everest” huge. Everyone is a mixture of confused and fascinated. At the top of these mountains, the men believe they can make out…structures. But that can’t be. How could anybody get up that high to create anything, let alone live there?
Complicating things is the funky way their location plays with time. By some strange coincidence, all their watches and clocks have stopped at exactly 6:14 am. Chalking it up to polarity and magnets, the team sets their sites ashore. But almost immediately, they’re met with the first strange creatures of this world, 8 foot tall blind albino penguins that just…stand there.
Lake could care less about all the weirdness. He wants to explore and he wants to do it pronto. So onto shore they go. If they thought things were weird on the boat, that was like a creep appetizer. This is the whole damn creepy food chain.
The 6:14 time dilemma morphs into a full blown breakdown of the laws of physics. When they bust out the planes and start flying around, mountainous cliffs a full five miles away, all of a sudden appear less than 100 feet in front of you, all within a matter of seconds.
More creatures, increasingly weirder, are discovered on the mainland, along with something so terrifying it will change the very way we view life on this planet. This is the kind of place that could put a permanent end to the phrase “When hell freezes over.” Because by all accounts, it just has.
The idea here is to grab every bit of information they can find and get the hell out in one piece because it’s only getting colder and the boat isn’t going to survive in this weather forever. Of course, as we already know, most of them don’t make it. Which leaves us with the question – how did the group meet their fate?
I’m always blown away when someone’s imagination takes me to a place I’ve never been before, so count me a thousand-times blown away that this particular story was conceived by someone 80 years ago. Outside of the tentacles jutting out of people’s bodies (which obviously reminded me of The Thing), half the stuff here was more imaginative than what I’ve read in every horror script in the past two years. There’s something beyond disturbing about 8 foot tall blind penguins that just stand there and do nothing. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get that image out of my head.
I also loved the idea of fragmented time and space. It added a layer of complexity that made every potential circumstance they encountered even more unpredictable than it already was. I loved the revelation of how the creatures got there, what giant secret ultimately rests in the region — I even loved the simple but effective setup – two huge ships packed to the gills with equipment and men, looking for new life on the last unexplored continent.
The only area where At The Mountains of Madness falters is in how it handles its dozens of characters. When we get to Antarctica, we get splintered into about five separate storylines. My issue is that none of the characters in the groups seems to know about or care about any of the other characters or what they’re doing. As a result, the storylines feel self-contained, almost like vignettes, instead of parts of a larger whole.
This is a problem for me because it’s so easily remedied. You need those carefully placed scenes in a story like this where the leader of the group, whoever she/he may be at the moment, makes it clear to both the characters in the story, and to us, the audience, what the current plan is, how long it’s supposed to take, who’s doing what and why, and where they plan to meet back up after it’s over. It’s only natural that a team would approach a problem in such a manner. That way, the story has a destination for every character, and even if everything goes to shit, there’s still form to it. There’s still a spine in place for the characters to latch onto.
Aliens does a great job of this. Despite the characters constantly getting split up, we’re always kept in the loop about what everybody’s plans are (i.e. “Bishop crawls to the far bunker to remotely fly in a second ship – we barricade the area so the aliens can’t get in”) so we’re never confused about where anyone is or what anyone’s doing. Here, that’s not the case. Certain characters just go off on their own and everybody else be damned. It feels sloppy, and as a result, the story misses that focus that all great multi-character movies seem to have.
But that doesn’t negate the fact that this is still a blast. Even if the storylines aren’t as dependent on each other as I would’ve liked, they’re all, for the most part, interesting. There’s usually a new surprise around every corner and most of those surprises are engaging and/or satisfying. So in the end I really dug this, and see why it’s become somewhat of a cult classic in the screenwriting world. Del Toro is wondering what to do next. Why the hell doesn’t he go back to this? It sounds more interesting than the other projects he’s playing with.
Script link: At The Mountains Of Madness (This script is meant for educational purposes only. If you are the writer or copyright holder of this script and would like it taken down, please e-mail me at Carsonreeves1@gmail.com and I will do so immediately)
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Sometimes the most benign things in a movie can be the scariest. I’ve noticed this trend in horror films where we’re trying to make the creatures bigger, badder, and more frightening than anything that’s come before them. It’s for this reason that something that SHOULDN’T BE SCARY AT ALL can be as horrifying as anything we’ve ever seen. Case in point, the scariest thing in At The Mountains Of Madness is based off a cute cuddly universally loved animal – the penguin. They may be 8 feet tall here, but they’re immobile and blind, essentially harmless. Yet it’s that harmlessness that makes them so terrifying. The lesson? Don’t always go with the obvious choice. Do a 180 and go in the opposite direction. You may find yourself with the scariest creature/situation of all.