I talked earlier about a lesson I learned from Vicky Cristina Barcelona; and another writing principle really crystallized for me while I was watching Eagle Eye this weekend, although in this case it was because of a failure (in my view) on the part of the script.
The premise of the film should be pretty familiar even to those who have only seen the poster. A mysterious voice on a phone is telling two people to do all manner of crazy illegal stuff -- but they'll die unless they do it. (There's also a good chance they'll die from doing it, but that's a story issue I'll skip over for now.)
On the face of it, that sounds like a fairly compelling film premise, even if it's one we've seen before. Enough for a $30 million opening weekend, anyway. And yet, the movie's biggest failing is that it adheres to that premise too completely. For the vast majority of the running time, the protagonists are only doing what The Voice is telling them to do. Sure, once in a while they say "No" to The Voice, but as soon as they do it, The Voice just gets even Voice-ier on them and they're forced to continue obeying.
People familiar with the academics of screenwriting might recognize that there's a cardinal rule being violated here -- the protagonists aren't acting independently; they're being driven by the plot rather than driving it. Yeah, yeah, I know. Academic arguments don't carry too far in the real world. If the movie works, it works, even if it breaks every rule there is.
But the movie doesn't work. The flaw in its DNA continues to manifest through 90% of the running time, and by the time the protagonists start doing things they're not being told to do, it's too late for the film to win back my interest (as well as the interest of the 73% of critics who rated it unfavorably). For the rest of the film, the deck is so stacked against them that they can never do anything but yield. Hence, the things they do are understandable and believable but not particularly interesting.
What if Principal Rooney had threatened to kill Ferris Bueller's entire family unless he came back to school? Well, I guess Ferris would've had to cut the joyride short. What choice would he have? He wants to have fun, but not if the lives of his loved ones are at stake. We'd see him sitting through history class with Ben Stein, eating lunch in the cafeteria, maybe dissecting a frog. No Cubs game, no parade, no "You're Abe Froman? The sausage king of Chicago?"
I may be going out on a limb here, but I don't think that version of the film would have been quite as successful. Thankfully, John Hughes didn't go that route. He made it almost impossible for Ferris to get away with skipping school, but not quite. And thus all the pieces fall into place. Not only do we like Ferris, but we admire him, because he pulls off an impressive feat against improbable odds. Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan, on the other hand, just can't do it. Their hands are tied. "If you want to live you will obey," the tagline says, and they want to live, so they just obey, obey, obey, and keep obeying. Can't blame them -- I'd obey, too -- but I do blame the writers for making it impossible for them to do anything independent.
But they can't. They're outmatched. Generally, "outmatched" is good in a movie like this (Terminator wouldn't have worked if Schwarzenegger were the good guy and Linda Hamilton were the bad guy), but there's such a thing as too outmatched. Eagle Eye isn't Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker; it's Darth Vader vs. Aunt Beru.
That's not my only issue with the story. Wrapped inside it is another one that may be even worse: The Voice is not just telling the protagonists what to do at every turn; it's also telling them exactly how to do it. And it's not just telling them exactly how to do it; it's also helping them do the things that it is telling them exactly how to do. Which is where the whole thing really falls apart. Despite my tail-wagging-the-dog quibbles with Shia and Michelle only doing what they're told, that conceit might have worked (or at least worked better) if they'd been forced to figure out how to execute the tasks The Voice was assigning them. In a James Bond or Mission: Impossible film, the protagonist usually just does what his superiors tell him to do, but at least he figures out how to do it on his own.
Of course, there are people in Eagle Eye who figure stuff out on their own; they're just not the main characters. They're Billy Bob Thornton and Rosario Dawson, the intelligence agents the movie cuts away to from time to time in order to convey information that the audience already knows. We see Shia and Michelle's SUV lifted up by a remote-control crane; then Billy Bob shows up in the next scene to say something helpful like, "Looks like an SUV was lifted up by a remote-control crane." (For a movie that bills itself as edge-of-your-seat action, there sure are a lot of filler scenes.) Well, at least he's capable of independent thought.
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Anyway, that's enough bagging on this particular flick. I can only judge the script based on the finished movie, of course, not having read all (or even any) of the drafts. As far as I can tell, it was written on assignment rather than on spec (I assume this based on the fact that the "idea" for the film came from Spielberg), and when an entire script is written under duress, as it were, the results aren't always as good. Regardless of any of that, I think that good spec screenplay writers can and should aspire to better than this.