Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Countdown to the Deathship

Today, The Hollywood Reporter announced that the fire under a project called Deathship has been reignited, and screenwriting duo Michael Brandt and Derek Haas will be writing a new draft of the film originally done by Scott Burn and Stephen Gregg. Burn has no credits to speak of, and Gregg has a singular credit on IMDB for a small indie film. Bradnt and Haas, the team who will be rewriting the screenplay have written such subtle cinematic pieces as 2 Fast, 2 Furious, and Catch That Kid! The film will now be called Countdown, and is being produced by Paramount’s production house Mandalay Pictures.

Countdown aka Deathship was originally a Twilight Zone teleplay that Richard Matheson adapted from his own original short story. The original Deathship episode which aired in the fourth season of The Twilight Zone is fantastic. It stands out in my mind as one of the strongest Zone episodes, (and I’ve seen almost all of them) because of its creepiness and its emotional depth. Deathship tells the story of space craft E-89, carrying a crew of three men who explore various planets they come across in their exploratory mission across space as they search for new worlds for human colonization. When the captain of the ship notices some interesting readings from a planet on his monitor, they land their craft down to investigate. Instead of finding the unique scientific specimens they were expecting, they stumble upon the wreckage of another space ship. But it’s not just any spaceship; its an exact replica of the ship they have been flying. When the men go inside to see if there are any survivors, they discover three dead men ---and these three corpses bear an identical resemblance to the crew of three that has just landed on the planet. Horrified and confused by what they have seen the men scatter from the ship, wandering away from each other to try and collect their thoughts about what they have just seen. In their distraught state each man begins to run into loved ones who they left back on earth. After tender and emotional greetings, the men all realize these fantasies would be ideal, if not for one minor detail. All the family and friends they are encountering have died years before. The three men reconvene on the ship, and the captain insists they are merely victims of some strange hallucinatory force. As they try to fly off the planet, they find that they are unable to break away from the atmosphere, and that the ship is readying to land itself on the planet once again, where they must once again face their inescapable destiny: death.

I get chills just writing the summary for that episode. It is so well done that you feel as horrified as the three crew men do, with each passing morbid realization. I have never read the short story upon which the episode is based, but having read others by Richard Matheson, I have no doubt it is equally effective and disconcerting in its literary form. Matheson has an incredibly dense and macabre imagination and his works always present startling truths beneath the horrors they paint.

But turning this story/episode into a film is a huge mistake. People who run movie studios should know by now that Twilight Zone episodes do not work as movies, at least 99.99% of the time. A short format of forty five minutes or so (Twilight Zone switched back and forth a couple times between half hour and full hour time slots during its duration) can do justice to a particular kind of story, that a full two hours cannot. Twilight Zone episodes are especially known for their twist/surprise endings; the last minute reveals that make us gasp or scratch our heads. There have been plenty of films in the recent years that have tried to capitalize on this “gimmicky” format, but very, very few of them have actually been good. In fact out of the past ten years or so, I can only think of one film that used this sort of finish, and was really a good film all around: The Sixth Sense. And even poor M. Night Shyamalan, has dug himself into a bit of a hole, in that everyone expects him to continue to use this formula, which is very difficult to repeat successfully.

TV can get away with things that movies can’t (and vice versa I’m sure). It’s a pyschological thing in part. When you’re laying on your couch after a long day’s work, flipping through channels, and you happen to come across a show that will not only capture your interest with its mystery, but will leave you a bit surprised at the end, you feel like you’ve gotten lucky. Maybe you’re even surprised. Assuming you happen to be an avid watcher of said show, the episode remains a neat little compartment of entertainment, that helped fill your night at home, where you weren’t planning to do much anyways. But when you go out to the movies, and you shell out ten bucks, and maybe even bring a date, or plan ahead, you expect a bit more out of it. If you sit in a dark theatre for two hours, and at the end of it, you learn that everything you’ve been watching is just a dream or fake, or a hallucination, you (or at least some people) will get pissed. Shows have chances to redeem themselves, films rarely do. Shows build a mosaic of themes and truths, week after week, films only have one shot.

While the episode “Deathship” is finely written and filled with interesting ideas, what makes it so effective is that we are seeing a brief glimpse of a loop that has been in place for God knows how long. The ship is a deathship, trapped in this planet’s atmosphere, its crew doomed to relive their deaths over and over until they can accept them. What makes it so creepy is that as the camera pulls out and we leave these three men to their fate, we know there is no salvation for them, and this is their eternity. A chilling thought.

But if this actually gets made into a movie, you know what’s going to happen. The three crew members are going to figure out a way to blast off and away from the planet, and head back into the arms of their friends and family who are alive and well back on earth. The story is no longer creepy. It’s lame. I mean, I would love it if they kept the original ending, but every studio would be terrified to have an ending that bleak. And judging from the fact that the script is being taken over by the men who penned such inspiring phrases as “Come on, man. Guns, murderers and crooked cops? I was made for this, bro.!”, “Do I even wanna know where the Skyline is, Dawg? Or where you've been for the past couple'a days? Or where the hell you got these rides from?”, and (who could ever forget) “I didn't know pizza places made motors.” My money is on the fact that they will not adapt the story with much grace. It upsets me that a smart and philosophical science fiction story will ultimately be turned into something like Red Planet (oh yes, I saw that puppy in the theatre).


Anonymous DoorFrame said...

"If you sit in a dark theatre for two hours, and at the end of it, you learn that everything you’ve been watching is just a dream or fake, or a hallucination, you (or at least some people) will get pissed."

I still get annoyed about the Usual Suspects. I know I'm the only one.

He just made the whole damn thing up!

8:30 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

LOL. You know I never thought of it like that before, but you're kind of right....

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am surprised JJ Abrams didn't take a shot at it, he is a Zone freak...I love the concept

5:58 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I certainly would be happier if JJ were at the helm of this, at least I feel like the film would have a shot in hell of being good....

10:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sometimes i just think the new yorker has too many sour grapes.. why can't he/she just allow for the chance that something good can come out of something, instead of shooting it down? for being such an outsider to hollywood, new yorker at times can feel as if she has spent more time in development hell than he/she may like to let on? care to comment new yorker? or are you passengering your many loyal readers on their very own "deathship"?

4:49 PM  
Anonymous nach said...

I really hate the gimmicky surprise ending concept for a movie. I never liked the Usual Suspects like doorframe and had a hard time trying to express how stupid it was to my fellow high schoolers when it came out. I also don't like Sixth Sense, but I haven't found another person that agrees with me.

6:51 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Yes, usual suspects is a bit overrated, though I genuinely enjoyed Sixth Sense...

6:54 PM  
Anonymous DoorFrame said...

I thought The Sixth Sense was mediocre until the ending. I walked out of that movie so impressed not because it was a twist ending, but becuase it was a completely predictable ending that I simply didn't see coming. Everything in that movie was building up to that twist, but you just weren't paying attention to the right plot points.

It's not like Arlington Road where you get to the end and say "What?" or like The Others and you get to the end and say "Yeah, so?" or like The Usual Suspects where you get to the end and say "That was completely unpredictable, and hence I'm not impressed." Sixth Sense was telling you what happened from the first five minutes of the movie. It kept telling you and telling you, but you just didn't see it coming until everything hit at the same time. It was impressive.

10:04 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

You know, you brought up The Others and it got me to thinking... Everyone bags on that movie because it came out the year after The Sixth Sense, and people label it as trying to copy that sort of twist ending. It did have unfortunate similarities, but I think it is actually quite an atmospheric and creepy films with many nice and clever flourishes. I feel bad that it doesn't get more props cause o the sixth sense. IF not for faulty timing, i think it would have been much better recieved.

12:17 AM  

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