Premise: After nearly dying in a car accident, a mechanic is given an experimental drug while in a coma. When he awakes, his IQ begins to skyrocket.
About: This is not the first Eric Heisserer/Ted Chiang collaboration. For those of you who get the newsletter, you’ll remember when I reviewed their previous collaboration, Story of Your Life (about an alien visitation that requires a linguist to help communicate with the ETs). The project has since secured Amy Adams for the lead role (she’s perfect) and Denis Villeneuve to direct. You may know Villeneuve as the director of another big spec script, Prisoners. Heisserer previously wrote The Thing remake and Final Destination 5. He’s since moved into directing, last year helming the Hurricane Katrina thriller, Hours, which starred Paul Walker.
Writer: Eric Heisserer (based on the short story by Ted Chiang)
Details: 116 pages (undated)
One of my favorite scripts from the last couple of years is Story Of Your Life. It took a big idea and approached it from a very intimate place. Sort of like M. Night’s “Signs,” but way better (and more original). As a screenwriter, this strategy is one of the best ways to get noticed, as you’re giving producers two things they want – a big concept and a story that can be shot on a reasonable budget.
But they’re not easy to write. Because of the tiny scope, the writer often ends up running out of engaging material. Look no further than one of the WORST movies I’ve seen this year, 2008’s Pontypoole (caught it on Netflix). It’s about a zombie outbreak that takes place entirely inside a radio DJ booth. Somewhere around minute 30, they ran out of stuff to do, and the rest was just, well, awful (they eventually figure out that the zombie outbreak is spread though…VOICE! So just by talking, the DJ is spreading the zombie virus! I’m not kidding!).
If you can prove yourself in that realm (your movie actually gets made), that’s when the gatekeepers trust you with a bigger budget. Which leads us to today’s script, the oddly titled, “Understand.”
30-something David Miller is a lowly car mechanic who, you get the feeling, hasn’t ended up where he thought he would. The one thing he’s got going for him is his beautiful wife, Lauren. One day after work, he picks her up and the two drive home like they always do.
Except before they get there, they get rear-ended into an icy river, where poor David watches his wife drift away. Three months later, David wakes up in a hospital room from a coma. He’s been told by his doctor that in order to get him out of the coma, they had to use an experimental drug.
As the days pass, David starts to feel smarter and starts craving knowledge. But this newfound intelligence comes with a price. The doctors won’t let David leave. Whatever this drug they injected him with is, it’s less about helping him and more about making him their lab rat.
The great thing about being super-smart though, is that you can outsmart the dumbos. And David’s able to escape with minimal effort. Once out in the wild, his intelligence continues to grow, allowing him to do things like learn Taekwando in the time it takes to check your e-mail and fly a Cessna plane with a three-minute prep course.
David quickly realizes why the doctors wanted to watch him so closely. David isn’t just becoming smart. He’s becoming a weapon.
Soon, David learns of a previous recipient of the drug he was given, another escapee named Vincent, who is a month ahead of him in the trials. Being one month ahead means having 30 additional days of intelligence growth. David may be a genius. But Vincent is the equivalent of 20 geniuses. David’s purpose shifts from eluding his pursuers (which now include the FBI) to stopping Vincent, who appears to be prepping an attack that could be the precursor to the end of the world as we know it.
“Understand” is a unique and entertaining piece of material. It’s sort of like Limitless meets The Bourne Identity meets Transcendence meets The Matrix meets Highlander. If there’s a hiccup in the script, it’s just that – it may be trying to do too many things.
For me, the script seemed to set itself up as an intimate thriller, possibly something that took place entirely in the hospital. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, it becomes a traditional “man on the run” Liam Neeson vehicle. It was during this section that I began to lose interest, since we’ve seen a bajillion of these thrillers already. The fact that the rapid-intelligence thing had been done fairly recently in Limitless didn’t help either.
But then Chiang and Heisserer start to get trippy, with David’s intelligence becoming so advanced that he can actually calculate where bullets are going to go before they’re shot, allowing him to dodge them (or, in some instances, deflect them with a knife blade).
However, once Vincent (the other super-smart guy) becomes David’s nemesis, the script almost becomes a super-hero movie, with the two fighting on top of buildings with super-advanced sparring skills. Heck, they eventually get so smart that they can move things with their minds, throwing yet another influence, Star Wars, into the mix.
What’s happening here is not a unique problem. Sometimes, for a reader to buy into a world, it requires the writer to slowly take us through the steps. In other words, it would be stupid if David could use telekinesis right away. But after we’ve seen him “level up” several times, it makes sense.
But if you take too long before introducing the REAL story (in this case, the emergence of Vincent and his diabolical plan), the reader can become confused. Oh, they say, I thought this was about a guy running away from the government. But it’s actually about a battle between two genius super-heroes.
The thing is, I mostly run into this problem with inexperienced writers who haven’t yet learned how to keep a consistent plot thread going for an entire script. They want to throw in new bells and whistles to keep your interest, not realizing that each one takes us further away from the original story we thought we were reading.
That’s not the problem with Eric’s script. He still knows what he’s doing so he makes it work. I just thought it felt a little unbalanced, with Vincent becoming this huge story agitator too late in the game.
The only other major observation I had was David’s job. David is a mechanic, which I thought was an odd choice since it had nothing to do with the story. There was ONE major payoff of him being a mechanic (he disabled the bad guy’s car), but if David is as smart as we’re led to believe, he should’ve been able to figure this out anyway.
We writers do this a lot. We absolutely LOVE a good payoff. But sometimes we love them so much that we’ll keep the setup to that payoff even if changing it would improve everything else in the screenplay BUT that payoff.
So say I was writing a comedy about an airplane pilot who can’t tell a lie for one day. The reason I made my main character a pilot? It’s a setup to an awesome payoff late in the script where my hero escapes the bad guys by hijacking a plane! Sure, that’s a nice payoff, but if I made my character, say, a lawyer instead, the setup would be a lot more ironic and lead to ton more funny scenes (Liar Liar). So you have to ask yourself, is keeping your main character a pilot so you can have that plane hijack scene really worth it?
I don’t think David being a mechanic is milking the irony of the situation enough. Flowers for Algernon (another “turn to genius” story) made its main character mentally retarded so that the irony level was high when he became smart. I don’t think that’s right for this particular script, but maybe they could do what Good Will Hunting did and make David a low level worker at a place known for the high intelligence level of its employees, like a giant bank or a huge trading firm.
By no means is going with a mechanic a bad choice. I just think if you can milk the irony of a concept, you do it. As a screenwriter, you don’t want to leave any stone unturned when you write a script. Always try to get the best out of every single element.
Anyway, “Understand” was a little schizophrenic but extremely well-written and moved at a speed-train like pace. The weird second half turn did throw me, but it also kept me off-balance, so I didn’t know what would happen next. I’d recommend this one if you can find it!
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
Number of times I checked the internet during read: 7
What I learned: Ahhh, I do not like numbered montages.
1) Frank works at his desk.
2) Frank and Sara sit at home, reading.
3) Frank goes fishing with his buddies.
4) Frank back at his desk, working.
I’m a big believer in keeping the writing as invisible as possible. The idea is to make someone forget they’re reading so they’re always immersed in your story. Anything you do to disrupt that reminds them it’s just a big fake made-up story. So seeing montages (long ones at that) that were numbered here, took me out of the screenplay. I was more focused on the “shot number” than the images themselves. With that said, Eric may be directing this or writing it for a director. In that case, maybe he wanted to know the specific shots he would have to get.