Monday, January 15, 2007

Script Review: Guillermo Del Toro's At The Mountains Of Madness

Though the version I have here on my desktop is doubtlessly a couple of drafts away from a shooting script, I have this weekend been reading Guillermo del Toro's At the Mountains of Madness. This pass of screenplay is adapted from the Lovecraft novel by del Toro and Matthew Robbins and runs to 100 pages, excluding the cover sheet.

It's tricky for me to review this script with full objecticity, perhaps, as I'm undoubtedly a fan of Guillermo's work and have develped a pretty good idea of his visual style, tastes and preferences. I haven't found it too hard to imagine details of how many of these scenes might be realised, and that's not exclusively due to their (frequent) vividness on the page. Nonetheless, I'm going to give it my best shot, and try to alert you to some of the highlights, and maybe lowlights, of the pages as they stand in this draft. Spoilers will follow - though they're probably nothing to be considered too extreme, only read on if you don't mind me setting up some preconceptions.

The very first high point I noted while reading turned out to be my personal favourite moment in the entire script. Miskatonic Professor William Dyer (never named as William in Lovecraft's novel, his first name as used here comes from his appearance in The Shadow Out of Time) and graduate student Walter Danforth are negotiating a deal to mount a history-making expedition into the antartic. A strange fossil has come to their attention, and seeking glory - as well as Great Big Answers to Great Big Questions about Life, The Universe and Everything - they're planning to trek to the place of it's excavation in search of evidence to 'sustain it's provenance'. Unfortunately, Danforth has already promised he mother of his unborn child that he won't be leaving, that he'll turn Dyer down.

Anne watches from outside a window as Danforth and Dyer discuss the deal and as it is cemented with a handshake. Here's the conclusion of this brief, but crucial, moment as scripted:

Are you interested in that, Walter?
(extends his hand out)
Making history??

Danforth’s eyes gleam with excitement. They shake hands. Lake and Dyer toast.

Danforth peeks outside: Anne is gone.

It's simple, but it's elegant, and it's a very clear visual that records the engine going zero-to-sixty on Danforth's story. To put it another way, you could put this wee bit in the trailer and communicate a whole lot with just a shot or two.

And when this script is at it's best, that's really how good it gets. There're plenty of moments that, which when pulled off of the page, fully recreated in cinematic terms, are going to both come over loud and clear and also reward deeper investigation. Here are my favourites, from the notes scribbled down as I read:

A handshake that ends a love affair is so closely followed by letters from home raining down from the skies; Rip Van Winkle; an icy grip; a flooded engine room, vividly packed with "floating papers, planks, rags and dead dogs"; the odd coffins; 'pearlescent, geometric offal'; a dropped scalpel is snatched away; fifty men who look 'oddly similiar'; a test with a burlap sack of salt; a late, surprising, return to the flooded engine room;

Moments like the above are a gift to Guillermo. He knows so well how to render them in an indelible manner, to make them ring like a clear, sweet bell.

And, while we're praising the big guy, he also knows action - which (no surprise) is going to prove very useful here. Blade II is a staple of my film studies course, much to the initial surprise and occaisonal amusement of some of my students. Pretty soon, however, they come to appreciate what Guillermo has acheived. The Blade II action scenes balance a fine sense of that particular film's style with a desire to push the action envelope, all delivered in a way that ensures each physical conflict perfectly dramatises the character and narrative conflicts running at the moment also. There's no reason Mountains will be any different, of course, so reading each of the action scenes was an almost mouthwatering proposition.

The novel is related in the first person by Dyer, while the cinematic equivalent finds Dyer's testimony from a hospital room (where he is, indeed, straitjacketed, mad and raving) setting up a flashback structure. This is our first similarity to John Carpenter, who derived something of In the Mouth of Madness from this novel, if less so than from other Lovecraft works. A more notable rank of Carpenter comparisons come instead with his film The Thing.

While The Thing is based upon John W. Campbell Jr's Who Goes There? and not Lovecraft at all, the stories have too many points of similarity for the likeness to be disregarded. For my generation at least, The Thing is a seminal film, one of Carpenter's very few greatest masterpieces and offers so many perfectly mounted scenes it would be hard for any film to come close and not be compared, and most likely unfavourably. Can Guillermo pull it off? Can he make a film with so much of The Thing about it and succeed in having his film stand alone, on it's own terms. I sincerely hope so.

Here are just a few of the more interesting similarities, if you care to know: the snowbound setting; the cast of scientific-minded characters; the escalating madness and paranoia; the dogs mutated into wretched, hellish form; the shape-shifting alien predator; the application of scientific method to identify imposters (this point in particular strikes me as perilously in danger of ill-fated comparison to Carpenter, despite the two scenes' many differences); the nihilistic semi-cliffhanger ending.

This film is very like The Thing in many ways, there's just no getting away from it.

The Cthulhu backstory is present here again, like in so much of Lovecrafts work, though the author has sliced it in a very different fashion than typical. Here, the Old Ones, the Shoggoth, great big Cthulhu itself are all rationalised, alien beings rather than supernatural ones. Very fitting, I believe, for a film from Hollywood's greatest lapsed Catholic. These immense beasts still look the same, creep and crawl and writhe and explode into flailing tentacular masses the same, but not because of any magical mumbo jumbo, because of their biological nature, their evolution. Of course, this is not the model of science that we know, but one that, in this script's diegesis, is fully explainable.

Some of the dialogue touches on the struggle between superstition and science, faith and rationalism. Sadly, some of this dialogue is... not so great. When it feels a little on the nose, or naive, then I'm hoping a strong performance - if not a rewrite - will help matters significantly. Here are a few examples of dialogue from throughout the script that struck me as hitting the nail too squarely, or of sounding awkward (when performed by the actors in my head at least).

Dreadful, isn't it, boys? All this hubbub? Our scientific community:
as hidebound as the Vatican. But we’re showmen, really.
Forced to thrive as vaudevillians.


You know how long we've worked to be part of this, Anne...
Walter’s been slaving over our charts for months now...

Antarctica is so full of promise, Anne- so full of mistery.
Out there- in those ice fields- there are answers to our very origin-


Impossible- nothing remotely as complex as this
creature existed on earth. It must be a fake-


A mirage at sea- just like the desert. A glacier becomes
a boat. A land blink appears where there is none-
Can't trust your eyes this far South...


You too, Dyer. You saw The Dark Man. In your dreams.
Dreams are a form of knowledge. Isn't that what you crave?? Knowledge.
Then learn this: The Dark Man is us. For one of us can contain all.
Indeed, our name is Legion... You may warn everyone- there will be others...
who will come here... The Old Ones gave you pride.
Pride was their downfall. It will be yours.


You can't go!!! It's still there- waiting!!! -for us!!!

Now, some of those lines sound a lot better in isolation than in context, but I'd be spilling too many spoilers and cutting and pasting too much of the script if I shared much more.

To cut a long story short, there's no doubt that Guillermo will turn out another great film when and if he makes At the Mountains of Madness. Some have already hyped this project as the one that will crown his glory - but, well, I'm not sure about that. The story is perhaps too familiar, both from the source novel, and other well-loved films; the ambition is not so huge, certainly as regards thematic exploration and intricacy of subtext; the imagery handed down from Lovecraft is sometimes awkward and absurd (the giant albino penguins, to give you one example); much of the dialogue is disappointing; there's not a single third act scene that surprises, confounds or astounds after the breakneck first two acts.

Nonetheless, this is still a far, far better script than many, and I feel privileged to have read it. I know that changes are inevitable before production, and I hope that they are sufficient to elevate this from a good, solid script that could possibly have floundered with a lesser director to something that would be exciting even without Guillermo's involvement. Of course, any studio-requested changes are likely to be aimed at already well-realised elements of the script: the action scenes are big enough, the characters are generally interesting, sympathetic and believable, and the sense of spectacle is awesome. Any further development where it is truly needed is more likely to be suggested by those closer to the project - and, thankfully, I think they've got the smarts, dedication and ambition to really take this somewhere.

If the Warner's sanctioned trailer for this film convinces them to greenlight the production, I think we can anticipate Mountains' release in 2009, or late 2008 at the earliest. The sooner the better, if you ask me, because even though this is very unlikely to be the most glorious film of Guillermo's career, it's still very likely to be one of the best films of it's year. Any year.

1 comment:

Tom Dougherty said...

I love Del Toro's painterly style of production, and I've always enjoyed his films, loving some and just really, really liking others. I'd see anything he'd care to make, really. I'm looking forward to this, and the Deadman movie he's supposedly looking at too. And of course Hellboy 2, which I'm hoping I like more than Hellboy, although I really did enjoy the first one. I was expecting a little more story.