Okay Sci-Fi heads. You got a wild one today. Midnight Special meets Children of Men. Who’s in???
Premise: A 16 year-old boy with special powers accidentally kills his father, forcing he and his mother to go on the run to escape authorities.
About: This script finished fairly high on the 2015 Black List. The writer, Mattson Tomlin, also had another script on The Black List that I reviewed, that one a comedy about trying to adapt a Jason Bourne movie. So this is a totally different subject matter. Tomlin is Romanian born and has written and directed a ton of short films.
Writer: Mattson Tomlin
Details: 116 pages
Have you heard? Netflix plans to release EIGHTY MOVIES next year. Eight. And then a Zero after it. 80. To give you some perspective on that, Warner Brothers, one of the major studios, released 20 movies this year. How the heck did some janky DVD rental outfit become bigger than all the Hollywood studios in under a decade?
There are a couple of ways to look at this. The first is that Netflix films aren’t very good (with a couple of exceptions). So do we really want 70 more subpar Netflix films? But for those of you reading this blog, this is AMAAAAAAAZING news. 80 films a year means anywhere from 200 to 400 screenwriters working. When you think that five years ago, this avenue didn’t even exist to screenwriters, every writer should be jumping for joy.
Speaking of, “Boy” is the exact kind of movie Netflix likes. A mid-budget genre film that’s a slightly off-center. So even though I’m going to go on one of my “sloppy screenwriting” rants after the plot breakdown, I’ll be the first to admit that these types of scripts now have an outlet.
We can tell right away that 16 year-old Mike Madnick isn’t living the typical teenage life. Sure, he goes to high school. He has a beautiful girlfriend. But Mike never goes to parties. He isn’t on any teams. He doesn’t do extracurricular activities. As soon as school is over, Mike goes home. Almost like he’s afraid of what people might find out about him.
Meanwhile, in the larger world, a new subset of people are being recognized as having a z-chromosome. This gives them special abilities, most of which revolve around mind-reading stuff, or being able to do stuff with their mind. And as cool as that is, if you happen to come out and admit you have a z-chromosome, you’re heavily discriminated against.
If you put two and two together, you’ve figured out that Mike has one of these chromosomes. And one night, after a fight with his parents, Mike sends out some sort of mind-shockwave that accidentally kills his dad. His mom, Marla, quickly buries her husband, and goes on the run with Mike.
FBI agent David Klyce becomes the point man on Mike’s case, and uses the kind of tracking abilities that’d make Tommy Lee Jones jealous, to follow Mike and Marla. Marla brings Mike to an old friend’s house, who happens to be working with the leader of an “Underground Railroad” for z-chromosomers.
However, once they team up with the Railroad, they sense that this might be less about helping Mike escape, and more about what Mike can do for them. Mother and son will have to make a decision to either trust these folks, or go back out on their own, a risky proposition with a determined Klyce on their heels.
A couple of years ago I reviewed Jeff Nichols’ screenplay, Midnight Special, which covers a lot of the same ground as Boy (a kid with special powers, on the run with his family). My problem with that script, which would go on to majorly bomb, was that the core conceit of the film – the kids powers – were vague.
He had powers but what were they? That was never clear. And when a major component (or in that case, THE major component) of your script is vague, it’s like trying to tell your story through a muddy windshield. The audience can’t see the road ahead. And if you don’t clean up the windshield at some point, they ask to get out of the car.
“Boy” is better plotted than Midnight Special. There’s more direction and clarity in the goals and stakes of the journey. But just like Midnight Special, I never got a handle on Mike’s powers. He was able to… mentally… make earthquakes? And sometimes when he got mad he was strong?
I’m not saying it’s impossible to make a script work where superpowers are vague. But you’re certainly not doing yourself any favors. The reason superhero movies are so popular is because the powers are so clear and simple. We know that when Bruce Banner gets mad, he becomes a giant green beast. We know that Spider-Man has the powers of a spider. Even superheroes with multiple powers, like Superman – the writers lay those powers out clearly (super strength, super sight, super hearing, he can fly).
The idea of a vaguely-powered character is not new. It’s been done a lot. And I think where writers go wrong with it is that they try to figure out what those powers are during the script. So they’re figuring it out at the same speed as you. You can almost sense them being like, ‘Oh yeah, they can do this.’
As the writer, you are God. You have to be all-knowing. And even if you don’t want to reveal your character’s powers right away, YOU better know what those powers are. Because there’s a difference. I know when the writer is confident about who his characters are and when he’s not. And if I sense that lack of confidence, I lose trust in the writer, and, subsequently, the story.
I’ll give you an example of both sides of the coin, since in every sci-fi review, I need to reference The Matrix. In The Matrix, they went through a painstakingly focused series of scenes to show what Neo could and could not do inside the Matrix. We understood that he had the power to move faster than others, become stronger than others, and also manipulate objects if he was really tuned in.
One of the reasons the Matrix sequels sucked was because they ditched that attention to detail. There’s that infamous moment at the end of the second film where Neo is in the gutters of the real world and the sentinels are coming for him and he throws a power wave at them, even though he’s not inside the Matrix, the only place where his “powers” exist. It was stupid. It made no sense. They never really explained it. You could point to that moment as being the nail in the coffin for the series. Once you start getting clumsy with powers and the rules that govern them, the audience gets frustrated. They stop trusting that you have a plan.
Getting back to Boy. Look, I’ve established in numerous reviews how I feel about ambiguity and vagueness. I’m of the belief that you want to be clear with your structure and the rules that govern your story, especially in sci-fi, where that kind of stuff can go south quickly. So I’m probably not the best person to judge a screenplay like this. I know that there are readers who treat ambiguity as a puzzle that allows them to participate in the story. Which I have no problem with. But for me, I can’t get past this stuff. I strongly believe that a clear set rules are imperative to a good script.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Think about some of the less popular superhero characters. Most of the time, it’s because you’re not clear what their power is. “Vision” in The Avengers, for example. The maroon guy with a cape. Nobody remembers him because nobody knows what the hell his powers are. Clarity is your best friend, guys. Not just in superpowers. But in all aspects of screenwriting.