A spec screenplay with no Black List play makes a strong late-year debut and asks the screenwriting community, “How could you miss me?”
Premise: A top secret deep space crew comes upon a strange deserted futuristic ship. After boarding, key members of the crew start experiencing time loops.
About: Echo Station was recently shot in Australia with Daybreakers directors Michael and Peter Spierig at the helm. Half of the writing team, Patrick Aison, recently sold Black List spec “Wunderkind” to JJ Abrams’ “Bad Robot.”
Writers: Patrick Aison & Brad Kean
Uhhh, how in the world did this not make the Black List??
Everyone but two people have told me it’s awesome. I was a little skeptical because people have called it “the next Source Code” and I’ve read several “next Source Codes” and they’ve all been full of programming glitches. But holy shit, Echo Station comes close! I thought the time loop device was dunzos after it reached Gangnam style use in the screenwriting community, but these guys figured out a way to make it fresh.
What shocked me most was how lost I got in “Echo.” I know I say that every time I read something good, but it still surprises me. In 95% of the scripts I open, I’m already thinking about the writing by page 2. I’m considering the writer’s choices or annoyed by how hard the prose is trying or upset by a weak character introduction. When somebody’s able to grab you and pull you into their story so you’re not thinking about any of those things – that’s a hell of an achievement. Even doubly so today due to the “This won’t be as good as Source Code” chip on my shoulder.
The plot here is really cool. It’s the near future and we’re in a space station far away from earth because they’re doing top secret dangerous experiments. The military has just sent up Air Force Colonel John Cole to take a look at the place and make sure everyone’s doing the jobs they’re supposed to do. The crew is wary of the corporate invasion and therefore don’t take kindly to Cole’s visit.
The key players on the 7 person crew besides Cole are Viktor “Stas” Stanislas and Natalie Rouvier. Stas is technically still married to Natalie but things clearly aren’t cooking at home anymore. And it doesn’t help that the strapping Cole immediately makes a connection with her. If you’re guessing that’s going to play into the story later, you’re guessing right.
“Later” doesn’t take long, as almost immediately after Cole docks, the crew is shocked to spot a sleek deserted futuristic ship called the “Amaranth” gliding past their station. Naturally curious, the seven of them jump in the shuttle and chase after the thing, docking soon after. After some initial analysis, it’s clear that the ship is decades ahead of any technology they’ve ever seen. Which is spooky in itself, but spookier in that there’s no one onboard.
A few hours after poking around, a surprise meteor storm hits the ship and the thing is ripped apart. But as everyone’s dying a horrifying fiery space-vacuumed death, a flash of light comes and Cole finds himself back in the compression chamber of the ship right before boarding. He’s looped back.
Naturally, he doesn’t know what the fuck just happened, but when he tries to tell the crew, they all think he’s nuts. Until, of course, the meteor shower hits again. And kills everyone again. And Cole loops back again. Cole quickly realizes that if he doesn’t figure something out, he’s going to be looped inside this ship forever. But that’s not the only thing he has to worry about.
After a dozen loops, Stas approaches him. Stas has been looping too. For a good three weeks. Which you’d think would be good news because now Cole has someone to brainstorm with. But Stas seems to look at this looping a little differently than Cole. He humiliates people, beats people up, tricks them, hurts them, all under the guise that they’re going to be looped back anyway so who cares? Stas has one simple rule for Cole. You can go do whatever you want, but stay away from Natalie.
But after awhile, Natalie becomes aware of the loops too, and her and Cole start scheming to figure out what Stas is up to. What they find is beyond disturbing. Stas has been looping for much longer than he’s let on. And video from those loops shows that he’s done everything imaginable to every member of this crew, including killing them hundreds of times. Stas has made Echo Station his own personal playground. If they don’t figure out a way to stop the looping and get out of this, they could be stuck in Stas’ hell forever.
I think the scripts I like best are the ones with an intriguing mystery at their core and a strong goal. Because, to me, those are two of the strongest story engines you can arm your script with. With these time-looping stories, it’s all about “Why is this happening?” That’s an intriguing mystery I want solved. My problem with this device, typically, is that the answer to that mystery is never satisfying. Here it was not only a great revelation, but it actually made sense!
(Spoiler) The reason the ship is looping is because it has a defense mechanism so that it can never be destroyed. If it encounters anything that disables it beyond repair, it jumps back in time to before it happened, theoretically allowing the crew to avoid the problem before it happens. That made total sense to me and I can’t tell you how important that is. Most writers will write In the cool mystery and figure that’s enough. “Oh, it doesn’t really matter WHY it’s happening,” they’ll convince themselves. “As long as it’s cool, who cares?” Err, no. When your script is more than a jumble of ideas, when it actually follows real-world logic and there are solid REASONS/MOTIVATIONS for things happening, everything about your story solidifies, because the reader TRUSTS you. They know you didn’t just throw this together on a Saturday night. This is a story with some real thought and effort put into it. And those are always the best scripts.
And the goal here is strong too, of course. Get out of the loop! That’s the thing with goals. The best ones are usually simple and obvious. It’s when we’re NOT sure what the goal is that we lose interest in the story.
If the script has a fault, it may be Stas. Don’t get me wrong. I thought he was a wonderful villain. But the more I thought about his motivation, the more I questioned it. He was okay with living this same loop over and over again so that he could be God, despite having to spend it inside a confined ship within a 4 hour time frame? I’m assuming you’d get bored with that after awhile.
Still, he was one fun little bastard. I both loved and was horrified by the videos showing Stas provoking crew members in early loops, then using subsequent loops to learn how they fought and anticipate their attacks in order to defeat them effortlessly later on. It really made the end a blast because you were genuinely terrified of this guy. You knew there was no way he could be defeated because he literally knew everything you’d do before you did it.
I would’ve liked to have known a little more about a few loose ends though. A cool revelation was when they find a picture of Stas, 20 years older, as one of the original crew members on the ship. This had my mind racing throughout as I tried to figure out what that meant, but I’m not sure it was ever explained. Also, how did this ship get here in the first place? It appears to be from the future. But that’s all that’s known. And yet, a part of me kinda liked it. It gave the script life after it was over, as it still has me wondering what it was all about. I guess that’s what happens when you read a great script. You even like its faults.
This is easily one of the best scripts of the year. I guess it just didn’t get the exposure it needed in order to make The Black List. Which reminds me, have you guys read anything good on the list yet? A few people have e-mailed me to say that “Devil’s At Play” is awesome.
[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: Take a popular device/story type/character type and EVOLVE it. If all you’re doing is giving us the same device we’ve seen in other scripts, you’re going to look like last guy on the block to own a Mini Cooper. Especially if you’re integrating a recent trend, like time-looping. Echo Station evolves time looping by having MULTIPLE CHARACTERS LOOP. This adds all sorts of character and plot possibilities we hadn’t seen before. People are hiding loops from each other. People are using their looping experience against one another. It just made the device feel fresh. You should always try and evolve the type of story you’re telling in some way so that it’s different from from came before it.