Premise: (from Black List) A rookie Marine gets stranded on a hostile planet during humanity’s space colonization with nothing but her exo-suit that’s running out of fusion power.
About: Who said the spec sale isn’t alive!? The Expansion Project was preemptively purchased by Warner Brothers for Brad Peyton (Rampage) to direct. The script finished with 15 votes on the 2017 Black List. Leo Sardarian most recently worked as a story editor on the Crackle series, “Start Up.”
Writer: Leo Sardarian
Details: 98 pages
I had only one criteria with The Expansion Project. Don’t be generic. That’s all I cared about. I’ve read sooooooooooo many of these scripts I’ve lost count. The biggest issue with them by far is that they give you nothing beyond the logline. So I was hoping for some surprises or for the script to zig in places where you expected it to zag. Maybe not Kill Snoke zag. But the Vulture is your prom date’s father zag. Let’s see!
An opening title screen alerts us that humanity is colonizing a section of deep space known as the “Frontier.” Elite marines are commissioned to clear new planets for civilized colonization and, if necessary, “quell the rise of profiteering rebels.”
Atlas is one of those marines. She’s getting ready for a drop over giant tree and snow-capped planet GR39. We don’t know much about Atlas other than it isn’t her first choice to be here. Too bad! After putting on her cool exo-suit, she leaps out of the ship orbiting the planet with a group of other marines. Their job is kill some local rebels then rendezvous at the pick-up point.
Within seconds of their jump, they’re being attacked by drones. Atlas is shot up, loses control, and ends up crashing on top of a snowy mountain. Due to high amounts of carbon in the environment, Atlas must keep her helmet on at all times. And her English AI assistant, Gibson, informs her that due to her plasma supply being hit, she only has 22 hours to get to safety before her oxygen runs out.
To add salt to the wound, her leg is semi-broken and GPS is kaput. She’s walking blind. Then, on the way down the mountain, she runs into some damn rebels, who start chasing and shooting her. Remember, Atlas is a marine. And her suit is built for shit like this. The problem is, any sort of help it gives her (helping her run faster or shoot at her enemies) depletes her plasma source even faster, leaving her with less oxygen.
After somehow surviving an avalanche, Atlas powers her way to the rebel outpost, realizing that her only shot may be to charge in, guns blazing, and take everyone out. If she can do that, maybe she can buy more time and find that rendezvous point. She achieves this barely in tact, only to get to the rendezvous point and find out… the ship’s been shot down! There is no rendezvous point! With only 2% plasma left, it’s looking very bad for our esteemed protagonist. Will she find a way out of this? Or will it be Game Over?
Reading The Expansion Project was a reminder of just how different each of the storytelling mediums (novels, movies, video games, plays) are. Sure, there are elements that work across all platforms. I’m yet to find a medium where suspense doesn’t work. But it’s imperative that you understand why each writing medium is different so you don’t stumble into their various pitfalls.
The Expansion Project is so similar to a video game, I kept looking around my couch for a controller. On the surface, this is a good thing. Video games and movies share many of the same qualities. They’re cinematic, fast-paced, and goal-oriented. But there’s one major difference. In a video game YOU ARE THE MAIN CHARACTER. Because you are controlling the hero, you feel like the hero.
The reason this is important is because the first step in any story is connecting the reader to the hero. If you can establish that connection, the reader/viewer will be engaged, because the hero’s plight is now their plight. This is the “hack” that allows video games to keep players so engaged without offering much in the way of character development. The player will play for hours on end, even if all they’re doing is shooting at things and trying to get the next checkpoint, because THEY ARE THE HERO. They are physically controlling their own fate.
It’s for this reason that when you try to move the video game format over to movies, it rarely works. Because the viewer is no longer physically controlling the hero, they’re not as invested. Which means you need to find a different way to get them to invest. Traditional storytelling methods require you to build a backstory into the character, give them flaws, add fears, and inject some personality into the person to build a connection with the viewer THAT WAY. If a video game writer doesn’t understand this, they risk bringing a character into the fold who feels empty. If they then ALSO give us a simplistic video game plotline, it won’t be as effective.
That’s the battle The Expansion Project is waging against itself throughout its running time. Its video game roots are blatantly evident. But it needs to connect us to the hero, Atlas. And it tries a couple of times – there’s a nice moment where Atlas is buried underneath an avalanche and tells her AI about why she joined the marines – but it’s never enough so that we really know this character. And so while I read though The Expansion Project with a certain amount of admiration for the writing, I was never emotionally invested.
There’s only one other way I’ve found that you can make a video game premise with a thin hero work. And that’s to put us in a setting WE’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE. I’d argue that this is why Gravity worked. That movie also had next-to-zero character development. It also had a video-game like setup (get from checkpoint to checkpoint with time always running out). But nobody had ever seen a movie like that before. And that helped people overlook the problems I’m mentioning here.
So you’re probably asking the question, well then Carson, why did this make the Black List? It made the Black List because the writing was extremely tight and descriptive, and the plot clean and simple. This is about as well as you can write a video-game like premise with a thin hero.
And it makes some good writing decisions along the way. I liked that Atlas’s time limit was not fixed, but that the plasma which was powering her suit was responsible for everything else as well. So when she’s being attacked by enemies and she has to decide whether to use her cannon against them, she must make that decision knowing it also depletes 20 more minutes from her survival time. I love it when characters have to make difficult decisions. And Atlas runs up against that problem constantly here, to the point where you’re saying, “No, dammit! You’re almost out! Don’t do it!”
I’d venture to say that if you liked Gravity or The Martian, you’ll dig this. Personally, I found it to be too familiar. Then again, I read everything. So I’m judging these things on a steeper curve. Check it out for yourself and let me know what you think.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: EMOTIONAL INVESTMENT. It is SO HARD to make a script work if the reader isn’t EMOTIONALLY INVESTED in the hero. You achieve this through a compelling backstory. By adding flaws. By exploring internal conflict. You achieve it with unresolved relationship conflict. You do it with the hero’s actions and choices. — But if all you’re doing is placing a blank canvas in a tough situation and saying, “Care about this,” we probably won’t.