Genre: Sci-fi Thriller
Premise: In a future where a portion of the population displays exceptional intelligence, an agent for the U.S. government must stop these “brilliants” from starting a war.
About: “Brilliance” was adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name. The producers have been out there working hard to get an A-lister attached, but haven’t succeeded yet. For awhile, Will Smith was attached. When he dropped out, they went after newly minted Oscar winner Jared Leto, but he passed. They look to be regrouping before they target their next actor. Marcus Sakey, who wrote the novel, is best known for writing crime novels set in Chicago, making Brilliance a departure for him. David Koepp, who adapted the book, is one of the top 5 scripters in Hollywood. He’s the big gun you call in to make people in town take your project seriously.
Writer: David Koepp (based on the book by Marcus Sakey)
Details: 126 pages – August 11, 2013 draft
What would you do if you were 100 IQ points smarter than everyone else? What would be your first order of business? Personally, I’d learn how to predict the stock market, become a billionaire, buy Twitter, then only allow one user, myself. And I’d tweet only 80s movies catchphrases like, (Ah-nold accent) “I let him go”. I know, I know. Cliché. But when you’re a genius, being cliché no longer bothers you. Your very existence is unique enough to negate all cliches.
Brilliance is about the smartest men in the room, which I always find interesting because if you’re writing about the smartest people in the room, don’t you need to be the smartest man in the room? How can you write genius if you, yourself, aren’t a genius?
Then again, “Lucy” did a jammin job of creating a genius hero. And Luc Besson can’t be that smart, can he? He created Ruby Rhod in The Fifth Element. I suppose with a combination of intense research and clever writing, you can fool the audience. But it’s not easy. And I didn’t expect it to be easy in “Brilliance.”
It’s been 30 years since a small subset of people on Earth started displaying extreme intelligence. Enough time to develop a system to identify these people, cultivate them, and integrate them into society in ways to help the planet become a better place.
Unfortunately, a sort of intelligence racism has evolved, due to a large group of “abnorms” jetsetting around the planet and blowing things up. These intelligence terrorists, led by a mysterious figure known as John Smith, are gearing up for a war, a war that may make anyone not an “abnorm” abnormally part of the past.
Enter agent Nick Cooper. Nick is an abnorm himself, and an expert at reading people. We meet him as he’s tracked down a terrorist at a bar. He tells her he knows she’s got a disk drive in her pocket because, like, he’s smart n stuff. That drive contains information on the next terrorist attack. Unfortunately the woman, Shannon, gets away, and Nick must chase her halfway across the country.
He finally catches her and, as you’d expect, realizes not everything is what it seems. Turns out his agency wasn’t telling him the whole truth. (spoiler) These attacks were actually coming from within the government. And wouldn’t you know it? The terrorist leader? John Smith? Turns out he’s a pretty good guy!
After Nick comes to grips with this news, he races to stop the next attack, an attack that may set off World War 3. That’s easier said than done since almost everyone he encounters is an abnorm. But Nick is a resourceful guy. And let’s not forget, smart. If there’s anyone who can save the world, it might be this guy.
Brilliance seems to be the ideal book adaptation. The story was made for the big screen. An active main character. A world on the verge of war. A hero who’s always on the run. A hook you can sell on a poster.
But that blessing is also the book’s biggest curse. This story was so perfect for the big screen that it doesn’t have anything else to offer. It’s your garden-variety Hollywood thriller. Which is ironic, since as you can see on the cover, Lee Child notes it’s a story you’ve never read before. And I just linked to an article by Lee Child Monday. But I feel like those author quotes are always friends helping each other out. It’s hard for me to take them seriously.
The hook, our supposed “fresh” take, is that a number of people are “brilliant.” Unfortunately, my worst fears were realized. Nobody really seems that brilliant at all. At least actively. Yeah, there’s the guy who bought Wyoming after figuring out the stock exchange, but we don’t SEE that intelligence in action. It’s relayed to us after the fact.
As far as what’s happening in the moment, nobody seems that smart at all. For example, Shannon, who’s “smart specialty” is being elusive, is able to blend into a crowd seemlessly. I don’t know what that has to do with intelligence.
I have a lot more admiration for the Lucy film now, as at least that displayed some thought into how intelligence works. The way Lucy was able to read people’s minds through the vibrations coming off of their heads. How each level up in intelligence was accompanied by a more autistic disposition. How her cells were accelerating out of control to keep up with all the changes.
The most intelligent thing we see anybody do here is a character saying, “You already know what I’m feeling, don’t you?”
I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re going to sell us on really intelligent people, there has to be a ‘wow’ factor involved with those people, something where we go, “Holy sh*t, they are f*&king smart!” I had that moment a few times in Lucy. I didn’t have it here.
As for the structure of the script, it felt off. In the first half, Nick’s playing for the good guys. At the midpoint, he says he has to infiltrate the terrorists from the inside, so he goes and pretends to be a part of the bad guys.
I didn’t buy this. Why would the terrorists, who know Nick, believe he’s one of them now? I never took Terrorism 101, but I know one of the first lessons they teach you is not to take a high-ranking official from the other team at his word when he says, “I’m one of you now.”
The personal stakes feel low here as well. Remember, the overall stakes are different from the personal stakes. The overall stakes are what happens on a large scale. Those were there. If Nick didn’t succeed, World War 3 was going to happen. But the personal stakes were Nick’s “abnorm” daughter, who the agency had just found out about, being placed in an “abnorm” school, where Nick wouldn’t be able to see her often.
This is important to remember. Stakes are relative. If you’re writing an indie movie about a mother and her new boyfriend and the boyfriend wants to put the woman’s daughter in a boarding school so he can have her all to himself, the stakes in that situation feel high.
But here, in a world where World War 3 is about to happen, a girl being forced into a special school feels like a minor inconvenience for the main character. We needed personal stakes that matched the gravitas of the rest of the script.
If Brilliance is going to work, it can’t feel like a garden variety on-the-run thriller. The “powers” of the intelligent people need to be bigger and more imaginative, the kind of things that get audiences talking. A woman so intelligent she can blend into crowds doesn’t exactly get me firing up the Tweet Deck (“Did you see that girl blend into the crowd!? Yikes. Now that was a girl who knew how to blend!”). You need those moments like in Lucy, the kind of moments you can feature in trailers. Sadly, I didn’t read a single trailer moment here.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] brilliant
What I learned: Designating description as passive or active. – When it’s time to describe something in your script, the first thing you need to do is decide whether the element is active or passive. An active element is anything that’s going to factor into the story somehow. If you’re describing a new building where an adjacent crane is going to become a part of your characters’ escape later on, you want to take some time and describe the crane. It’s an active element. If, however, the building is just a building and won’t be used in any unique way after the scene, it becomes a passive element, and therefore deserves no special distinction. Keep the description as short and generic as possible.
I bring this up because amateurs tend to think everything should be described as an active element. It doesn’t matter if it’s a house, a refrigerator, a street, a car. They over-describe these things to death and it KILLS the read because it forces the reader to trudge through a bunch of description that ultimately doesn’t matter. Imagine, for example, your character is flying into Washington D.C. How might you describe the approach?
The beginner writer focuses on the way the moon reflects off the building windows and how the people on the ground look like ants in some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland. Blah blah blah. NO! Here’s how Koepp describes the approach.
Gliding silently through the sky over Washington, D.C., we see the familiar landmarks — the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House.
That’s it. That’s all we need because the city is a passive element in this context. Now if your hero was flying into Dubai, and a key scene takes place later on the city’s tallest skyscraper, that makes the skyscraper an active element, which means you might want to give it a more elaborate description. But it all comes down to designating what the element is. Figure out if it’s active or passive, then describe accordingly.