Premise: Spanning thousands of years, we follow three separate storylines that deal with the universal questions of love, death, and time.
About: This script finished in the top 10 of last year’s Black List. The writer, Colby Day, is a brand new writer on the scene. He wrote one extremely low budget movie in 2011, but for all intents and purposes, this is his breakthrough moment.
Writer: Colby Day
Details: 97 pages
One cannot think of the “spanning time sci-fi” genre without mentioning Cloud Atlas. That film is arguably the most beautiful science fiction film ever made. Which shows you just how bad it must have been that nobody ever speaks of it.
The problem with spanning time movies is that the writer seems more excited by the fact that he can cut between 12,000 B.C. and 2400 A.D, than actually creating a compelling story! Seriously. Everyone wants to copy that bone thrown up in the air, cut to space 2001 shot because – let’s face it – IT’S FUCKING COOL!
But cool cuts between vast gaps in time make up maybe 1/10000 of your screenplay. You still have to tell an entertaining story. Did today’s script do so? Let’s find out.
We start out in 45,000 B.C. That’s where we meet our Neanderthal family of Thorn, his wife Hera, and their daughter, Lark. For this tight-knit group, the goal is simple: SURVIVE. It isn’t just the harsh conditions they live in that threaten them. It’s that they have no knowledge of medicine, no knowledge of anything. If someone gets sick, it’s very likely they’ll die.
Cut to present day where we meet Claire, a professor who studies history, specifically the Neanderthal people. Claire’s a bit of a bitch, and when she’s not carbon-testing bones, she’s fending off resident geek and fellow professor, Greg. Claire detests Greg but since he’s the only guy giving her any attention, she keeps him around.
Cut to 2217, where we meet Coakley, a young women genetically altered to live for hundreds of years. Coakley is on a spaceship headed to a planet in another solar system which she plans to populate with a bunch of frozen babies she’s hauling downstairs. Her only company is Rosco, the female A.I. on the ship responsible for keeping Coakley alive. When the ship’s hydrogen generator goes down, Coakley has to figure out a way to fix it, or die.
The script cuts back and forth between these three storylines, and then, as we move into the final stages of the story, we push further and further forward in time, until we’re spanning entire generations. It is the most noble attempt at covering the plight of mankind in under 100 pages that I’ve ever seen.
Let’s get back to that question. Is In the Blink of an Eye a good story or is it time masturbation? The only way we can answer that question is to look into the individual storylines and see what kind of story engines are driving them.
We’ll start with the Neanderthals. Now as I’ve mentioned many times in the past, the two most powerful story engines are a specific goal or a mystery. Those two engines drive 95% of the best movies out there.
There’s a goal in the Neanderthal section in “Blink” but it’s a general one: To survive. General goals can work, but the characters have to pick up the slack that the plot’s not offering. And of the three storylines, the Neanderthals are the most sympathetic. We see them lose two babies and a mother. We see them battle disease and the elements. So I was invested in them.
The problem is the problem that always happens when you have a non-specific goal. The ending is weak. If you’re not pushing towards something specific, it’s hard to know where to end your story. And here, we just watch Neanderthals give birth to more Neanderthals who give birth to more Neanderthals, and that’s sort of it. I wasn’t sure what to make of that.
Let’s talk about the present day then. Claire doesn’t have a specific goal. Nor is there a mystery in place. However, as we’ve established, if you don’t have a story engine, you can still save your story with a great character. The problem is, Claire is a total fucking bitch. She’s rude to this really nice guy who really likes her and only wants to do good things for her. So this was a tough storyline to get invested in. I kept wanting them to connect Claire’s research to the Neanderthal storyline in a concrete way, but it was all very vague.
Of the three storylines, Coakley’s is the only one with a concrete goal: To colonize a new planet. The benefit of having a goal in your story is that you can place obstacles in front of that goal, and because you have obstacles, you now have drama.
With Coakley, we get this entire sequence where she needs to figure out why the ship isn’t producing hydrogen or she’ll die. Because of that, she has to make one of the most difficult decisions in the script – she has to reboot Rosco. Rosco points out, “But doesn’t that mean you’ll be killing me?” The Rosco that comes back will not be the same Rosco she’s been with this whole time. It’s a torturous decision.
Compelling dramatic moments like this can be traced back to the power of the goal. Without the goal, we couldn’t create the obstacle. And without the obstacle, we couldn’t create a solution that only included the difficult decision of killing your only friend.
It seems to me that Colby Day was less interested in writing a well-conceived plot, and more into tackling the thematic nuances of time and death and the universe. And I totally respect that. I mean, that’s basically what 2001 did.
But whenever somebody does this, I can’t help but wonder whether they did it because it’s easier. It’s a million times easier not to connect things. It’s so much harder to dig in, do the hard work, and figure out how to directly connect storylines from 200 years apart, from 45,000 years apart. So a lot of writers will just say, fuck it. I’ll go the thematic route and position my script as a thinking-man’s piece that leaves its answers up to the viewer.
Takes me much less time. If it works, I look like a genius. Win-win.
With that said, I’ve been saying I want more original screenplays and this is definitely that. Thumbs up to Day for not giving us another biopic. If I had to read one more logline that started with, “The true story of an underdog stock trader in the midst of a midlife crisis who was the first man in World War 2 to meet the Beatles while Stephen King wrote his first book…” I was going to blow my brains out.
In the Blink of an Eye was just too “floaty” for me. I wanted something concrete. Something I could put my hands on. It’s not a bad script. It just wasn’t my thing.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: When you’re jumping back and forth between timelines, strong narratives within each of those timelines help. Without concrete story engines that push your characters forward with gusto, we’re always getting dropped back into a laid-back atmosphere, one that takes us awhile to remember what’s going on and why it’s important. There’s no wrong way to write a multi-timeline screenplay, but my experience reading these scripts has taught me that without strong engines powering the individual stories, you’re making things very hard on yourself.