SUSPENSION and AFTERLIFE
April 30th, 2004
Reviewed by Darwin Mayflower
NOTE: The screenplays we review are often in development and may experience many rewrites, some could end up being completely different than what is reviewed here. It is our hope that our reviews generate more interest in the film. Thank you.
Joss Whedon was one of the first among a slew of screenwriters who fled to TV and became rich -- and powerful -- in the process. Others in this group include Kevin Williamson, Aaron Sorkin and Ryan Murphy (John August and Ron Bass also briefly had TV series). I suppose the allure of TV for movie writers is that they get to write -- a lot -- have control over their work -- and, best of all, there is a lightning-fast immediacy to the operation.
Even if a screenwriter sells a script just as its spewing from his printer and the movie goes into production soon after, he cant expect to see what arose from his material till a year later. At the minimum. And in that time there are revisions, revisions, revisions. Revisions to suit locations. To suit the directors whims. To suit the actors insecurity. To include the ideas of the studio heads and the costume people and the producers brothers sisters boyfriend.
With movies they work toward the script -- pushing everything into it with a metaphorical earth-mover. On TV they work from the script. There is no time to dillydally and you take what the script says and match it.
Joss Whedons career as a screenwriter has been garrulously exposed for some time. Joss himself, for the most part, talking of its ineffectualness.
The disappointment of the movie BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and his subsequent rewrite jobs on WATERWORLD and TWISTER, coupled with his two high-selling spec scripts going unmade, drove Joss Whedon from screenwriting. (The two highlights among all of this -- besides the moola -- was winning an Oscar for TOY STORY and tightening up SPEED for director Jan De Bont.)
As we all know, Joss triumphed in the end and had screenwriters everywhere beaming. He took back that first disappointment -- his first script -- and turned it into a gold mine: A hip, smart TV show that features ghouls and goblins and manages to make critics salivate.
Before BUFFY (the TV show) Joss wrote two scripts: SUSPENSION and AFTERLIFE. Both were huge spec sales -- both were slated for production -- but neither one has yet made it. At this point SUSPENSION is dead and AFTERLIFE is being rewritten and directed by Andy Tennant (ANNA AND THE KING).
If youll now dive headfirst with me into the past, Id like to take a look back on these scripts.
To put it simply: both were good, solid scripts. I very rarely take a second look at a screenplay, but I reread both of these. Not only because of their quality, but to try to glimpse how Joss was able to entertain with such seeming ease.
SUSPENSION is the lesser of the two scripts. But only for one reason: its plot. Theres no other way to put it but to say this: it is DIE HARD on a bridge. I know, I know -- if you hear one more "DIE HARD on a (FILL IN THE BLANK)" youll kick yourself in the head. I mean, whats next -- DIE HARD in an airplane toilet?
But, fear not, Whedon fans. Because Joss has crafted possibly one of few DIE HARD rip-offs that actually work.
Harry Monk is being released from jail after a long stretch for armed robbery/attempted murder. All he wants is to smell fresh air and go to an old bar he knew. But his plans are cut short as his cab rides onto the George Washington Bride. And, like everyone else on it, he becomes trapped by a gang of ruthless criminals who have taken the entire bridge hostage.
(Just to note: their operation is smooth and semi-realistic, though I think there might have been a few ways for the people to skedaddle.)
The criminals are headed by a droll psychopath: an Asian man named Chi. Whats great about this character is that Joss realizes that madmen arent calm and slow-burn threatening. They are loony and unpredictable. Chi, rolling on the waves of his unstable emotions, is given to petulant fits and sometimes is even a bit...funny. In the scripts most shocking scene Chi, to show the cops he means business, murders a young boy on the network news. As the boys body is taken from the room, Chi muses, "I wanted a baby for that spot, but having the boy was a nice touch."
Harry Monk hooks up with an at-first disbelieving female New York City police officer and, together, they figure out whats going down and try to stop the criminals before they kill anyone else.
Hows this for backstory: Harry was once a cop. He is hated by the NYPD and they tell Avery (the female cop) that he cannot be trusted under any circumstances. They let her in on what Harry could not -- he once shot a cop. But Avery is starting to fall a bit for this guy. And even with her guard up, knowing he just spent fourteen years in jail for shooting someone, Avery slowly allows him in.
Joss writes their courtship-adventure like two young kids playing cops and robbers. Which I think is just how it would be in real life: When youre in a situation as absurd as this -- even with bullets chewing the ground around you -- wouldnt your first instinct be to normalize it with a joke?
The plot of SUSPENSION redeems itself when we find out the real purpose of the ordeal. The criminals didnt want to force money or the freedom of prisoners from New York. They did all this to trap a Texas oil billionaire who would be on the bridge. For one hundred million dollars -- transferred from his account to theirs (no big sacks of money, thank you) -- theyll let him leave the bridge alive.
Hank and Avery spoil their plans, of course. And its these scenes (quite a few featuring early John Woo shenanigans) that make you forget youre reading the umpteenth take on DIE HARD. The action scenes in this script are roller-coaster fun and thrilling. Like a theme-park ride, it keeps your screams shaded with laughter. Youre scared because its skillful and a carbon copy of reality, but in the back of your mind you can laugh and rejoice in it because the knowledge that you cannot die still pulses. It is the glee of fear-heightened euphoria that comes with every new, insane experience of childhood.
And this is what most action scripts/movies miss these days. And is why theyre so dull. They miss the idea that were just big kids who want a sugar rush.
Give me a fun time and Ill excuse almost anything (which is why I enjoy, and always will, movies like ARMAGEDDON, GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS, and every other factory-produced-for-maximum-thrills action film that has its head in the right place). And Joss Whedon, with his kid-high-on-sugar take on the action genre, does just that: wows us without an ounce of self-seriousness or allusion of anything more momentous than a man bungee-jumping down the side of a bridge.
(One interesting note before I move on: If you look at the early drafts of CON AIR by Scott Rosenberg you might notice a few "convenient coincidences" between the two. The original opening to CON AIR had three convicts giving Poe a "going away party"; the scene is almost identical to one in SUSPENSION.)
AFTERLIFE, written one year after SUSPENSION, is every bit as inventive and ingenious in its plot as SUSPENSION was derivative.
AFTERLIFE is the high-concept thriller genre at its very best and most perfervid.
Daniel Hoffstetter is an unassuming scientist who is spending his last days with his wife, Laura. Daniel is dying, rapidly, from a fatal disease. The knowledge of this hangs like a pall over their existence. They try their best to live a normal life, but the stark and very real idea of death as the Almighty saps any notion of commonplaceness.
Daniel collapses and quickly dies in the hospital. Laura was out of the room, trying to catch up on sleep, when he perished. She never got to say good-bye and she is stunned and guilt-stricken.
Something strange happens to Daniel. He wakes up. In a sterile white room. No, its not heaven. He is alive!
A government agency, Tank, has saved his life. And when Daniel looks in the mirror he gets an even bigger shock: He is no longer in his body. He now stares back at a young, healthy, pinup-level man of intense beauty.
The agency takes dying men before they will expire, does the ol movieish brain switcheroo, and have the men continue their research underground -- in secret.
While Daniel appreciates his abs and good looks and the reawakening of his sexuality, he misses his wife. He cannot simply forget her, leave her behind, with her thinking he is no more, just because Tank says so.
In an adroit balance of giving an audience what they want and using Daniels intelligence to battle realistic barriers, Joss gets Daniel out of the desert compound and on his way back to his wife.
And the race is on...!
But I bet you didnt see this coming: The person who Daniel now inhabits was not just an average citizen who died young. No. As Daniel quickly finds out as hes almost mowed down by a storeowner, the man wasnt liked much at all. Matter of fact, he was a killer. A serial killer. And he was put to death.
Daniel connects the dots: Tank takes prisoners who are about to be executed and implants the scientists into them so their important work can continue.
Daniel is now on the run -- in a body that is (in)famous and widely known; everywhere he goes people recognize him and urinate in their pants.
Tank is looking for him. The cops are looking for him. The press is after him because they want to know what the hell is going on -- is this really Jamie Snow? The executed serial killer? That, and the cop who originally busted Jamie, a man named Moody, is an exploded-synapse away from insanity because he caught this guy and hes dead and Moody will do anything -- anything it takes -- to see that he stays that way.
And poor Daniel has to deal with Jamie Snows personality crawling back up into his consciousness. As the people at Tank come to realize, the implanted personality cannot hang around forever; the old person slowly regains their motor skills and soon the desert compound is a eddy of violence as the group of killers-scientists-now-killers-again wreck havoc.
Daniel finally gets back to his wife (not before a few beautifully constructed action pieces). And what makes this script special, beyond its action-and-intrigue trappings, is how Joss handles the reunion between these two. It is tentative and gentle. They are rediscovering one another and able to do what each couple wishes they could: bring it back to that indescribable electric charge of their first touch. Joss is also smart enough to know that Laura and Daniel would indulge in his newfound strength. Which translates to heating up the sheets like hog-wild teenagers. And this is why I think Joss Whedon is such a good writer. He simply knows people. Hes always right on and with it when it comes to human interaction and when his characters are faced with extraordinary situations. Add that to his knowledge of the little things -- the small asides and quirks that make up life -- and Joss is able to draw true human portraits of the true human condition even in action scripts and a show about a young vampire-slayer.
AFTERLIFEs finale is absolutely showstopping in its blindsided punch. Joss wraps all the threads in his hand and thrusts us toward a big, exciting, passionately zealous, sharp ending.
Id love to give it all away -- itd be a lot of fun spelling it out for you, and giving my thoughts on what certain people must have been through and how the plot works in a nice tale of redemption-as-virtue -- but the film is now being made -- hopefully with little change -- and I wouldnt dare ruin it for anyone.
AFTERLIFE is a great Hollywood action-thriller with a grinning plot that seems so simple on paper but takes a grand-master to craft into something that stays off the road of hokum. With equally large dollops of fantasy and reality, Joss is able to walk the center ground -- and strike the heart of impermanent movie heat.
Joss Whedon may have been turned off to writing movies because of a few early, bad experiences. But I, for one, hope he takes his current power with him to the table next time, does something besides rewrite others work, and lays out another in the long line of unstoppable, nuanced, picture-perfect, Hollywood-at-its-best entertainment he has floating around in his brain.
-- Darwin Mayflower.