Premise: When the United States’ most prominent aircraft carrier is infected by a deadly North Korean biological virus, they must figure out how to stave off both the virus and the North Koreans themselves.
About: This script comes from producer Arnold Kopelson, who was, at one point, one of the top five producers in Hollywood. He gave us such movies as Seven, The Fugitive, Platoon, and The Devil’s Advocate. But nothing is forever in Tinseltown, and Kopelson’s last feature credit was the 2004 Ashley Judd thriller, Twisted. Airborne was supposed to be a comeback project for him. However, the aircraft carrier element might’ve doomed the project, since it was competing, at that time, against the 200 million dollar juggernaut that was Battleship. With the North Korean threat reaching a fever pitch in the news recently, maybe this project gets new legs.
Writer: Jonn Moore
Details: 140 pages – 2008 draft
I wouldn’t call what I’m about to discuss an epidemic. But it’s a big enough problem that I run into it frequently.
That problem is dated writing.
Dated writing is when you write with concepts, characters, plots, and ideas that are tonally consistent with a bygone era.
When someone reads your script, it feels like they’re reading a script from 20 or 30 years ago. Now on some level, it makes sense why this happens. If you’re pursuing screenwriting, the movies that originally made you fall in love with this medium are going to be old, and those movies are always going to influence your writing.
However, if you try and write movies like that today, your scripts, by and large, will feel out of touch.
For example, imagine trying to write E.T. today. Or Richard Donner’s idealistic Superman. Or Pretty Woman. Producers would look at you like you were crazy.
See, this is the big lie writers tell themselves. “Hollywood doesn’t want anything new.” That’s actually ALL Hollywood wants, is the next big new thing. The reason why writers get this wrong is because they don’t understand how Hollywood defines “new.” Hollywood defines new as “a fresh take on an established idea.”
Jordan Peele finding a fresh take on the horror film in Get Out. Wonder Woman’s WW1 setting brought a fresh take to the superhero film. Dunkirk’s dialogue-scarce time-jumping storytelling was a fresh take on the war film. Baby Driver’s musically influenced set-piece style was a fresh take on the heist flick.
This is what Hollywood wants from you. They want you to take what they know, and twist it in a way only you can. On the flip side, if you try to write a 2017 version of Die Hard without some twist? Or a 2017 version of Jaws without a twist? If you try and write Face Off or Trading Places or Under Siege or City Slickers or Speed? Those types of movies are dead and gone UNLESS you’ve got a new spin on them (and NO, that doesn’t mean just turn the characters into women!).
And that’s the big problem with Airborne. It feels like a movie from another era.
Will Dixon (I mean come on – even the hero’s name is from a bygone era) is a commander on the USS Ronald Reagan, the stud of the U.S. military’s aircraft carrier fleet. After enjoying a quick break off shore from his duties, he’s told to suit up because something big and bad just happened in North Korea.
After they sail over to the NK, Dixon’s informed that a mysterious weapon has been tested and they need to gather intel on it. So they send a couple of SEAL teams in, who discover a thousand dead bodies who’ve been melted down into one long heap of flesh.
When they get back to the ship to report what’s up, it turns out one of the SEALS contracted whatever virus was used on the heap, and now the virus is spreading through the ship. Not only that, but the kill-rate is 100%. This is a SERIOUS bio-agent.
After the captain of the Reagan dies from the virus, the president reluctantly promotes the inexperienced Dixon to captain, where he will need to solve two problems. First, he must find a way to stop this fast-spreading virus from killing his entire crew. And second, he must decide whether to declare war on North Korea, who is preparing to attack the Reagan. I could go on, but I’m fairly sure you know what happens from here on out.
And isn’t that last sentence the most telling? That I’ve set up the first half of the movie for you, yet you don’t need me to detail a single page of the second half to know exactly what happens?
That’s one of the reasons Airborne feels like a script from a bygone era. It embraces that late 80s, early 90s, mentality of a simplistic plot setup with black and white heroes fighting black and white enemies. It’s action for action’s sake. There is NOTHING new.
And if there’s nothing new, you’re not doing your job as a writer. Because without “new,” there’s nothing to create a sense of wonder in the audience, a sense of, “I haven’t been here before therefore I don’t know what’s going to come next.”
I don’t want it to seem like this script was a total bust. I admired the attention to detail. All of the call signs and the language the crew members spoke seemed authentic, which helped sell the realism of the event. As I’ve said before: specificity breeds authenticity. And except for a few questionable calls (why are nurses who just worked on infected victims allowed to mingle in the mess hall??), there was a lot of detail and specificity to Airborne.
Another thing with these movies is the allure to resort to simplistic inner and outer character conflicts. It seems like in every one of these military scripts, the main character is battling some belief in themselves as well as battling a family member who’s also in the army. For example, Will Dixon’s father works back at the White House, and he doesn’t think Will has the chops to captain this ship. So Will’s trying to prove himself to his father the whole movie.
Look, I’m not against integrating cliche conflicts. The reality is, you only have so many options to work with. But we’re so influenced by screenwriting books and sites like this one, where I’ve written articles about how to institute flaws and conflict between family members, that we think it’s a requirement. But all it is is an option. You don’t HAVE to do it. And the truth is, most of the time, the writers who institute these flaws/conflicts, do so less to explore them, than to get that screenwriting coverage box checked.
And that never works.
The exploration of a character flaw or a family division or a character vice like alcoholism – those things only work if you’re genuinely interested in exploring them. For example, Will’s issues with his father back in Washington. Here in this script, it reads empty because it’s just checking a screenwriting box. But had the author anchored that relationship to his own troubled relationship with his father, and really dug deep into that, there’s a good chance we would’ve bought into it.
And that’s true with everything you write. If it’s not authentic, it probably won’t work. In the case of the movie Flight, with Denzel Washington, I wasn’t too keen when I read the first draft of the script. But when I saw the movie, the first thing I noticed was how much deeper they went into Denzel’s character’s alcoholism in the rewrites. The alcoholism wasn’t “checking a box.” They really explored what that disease does to a person. And I’d be surprised if screenwriter John Gatins didn’t anchor that alcoholism to something in his own life.
Anyway, let’s wrap up. One of your jobs a screenwriter is to find the fresh new thing, is to find stories that haven’t been told before or stories that have been told, but tell them from a fresh perspective. They don’t make movies like they did in your childhood anymore because those movies ran their course. If you want to steer those movies back into the mainstream conscious, you’ll have to do so with a new twist.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Don’t box-check write. Box-check writing is when you’re more interested in getting the “I included what the screenwriting book told me to do” box checked than authentically exploring that element of your story. Screenwriters giving their characters vices like drug addiction or alcoholism are the worst examples of this. But it extends to everything, such as the father-son relationship here with Will Dixon and his dad. If you’re not willing to go all in on that and explore it from a truthful place, a better option might be to not include it at all.