On thrill pix, scribes are on a mission impossible

MEMO TO: The Writers Guild

FROM: Peter Bart

HAVING BEEN CATAPULTED through the first two entries in the summer blockbuster derby, I have come to realize that some serious rethinking must be done about your writing awards. The categories have clearly fallen behind the times.

Now let me say at the start that I rather enjoyed both “Twister” and “Mission: Impossible,” having succumbed to the Morph Mania that characterizes the new generation of techno-thrillers. I’m even looking forward to “The Phantom,” “Independence Day” and all the other megamillion-dollar popcorn epics that are about to explode from the pipeline.

However, I am also aware that movies of this genre have to be evaluated in an entirely different way. Audiences want a theme park ride, after all. That means the effects are the stars. Old-fashioned things like character development, empathy or even story logic don’t really matter anymore. Which brings us to the question of writing awards. How can you compare the script of “Fargo” with that of “Twister”? It doesn’t make any goddamn sense.

It’s time for a new category — call it “Best Written Theme Park Ride.” Or “Best Deconstructionist Action Script.” Or even “Best Non-Writing for a Special Effects Movie.” The time has come to think to the future.

It’s interesting to see how film critics deal with this dilemma. Richard Schickel, for example, in his review of “Mission: Impossible” in Time magazine, argued that “they don’t construct thrillers anymore, they deconstruct them. It’s as if they were making a musical that was all production numbers, no book.”

While Schickel accepts all this as “postmodernism for the masses,” he acknowledges that he’s old-fashioned enough to miss “those little throwaway scenes where people hint at loves, hates, beliefs, disbeliefs — what Hollywood’s wise old hacks call ‘rooting interest.’ ”

Well, sure. The bottom line is that, much as audiences may be buffeted by the action sequences in “Mission: Impossible,” most people really can’t figure out what’s going on. I even talked to one of its script writers who conceded he still loses his way in the narrative.

IN ‘TWISTER,’ BY CONTRAST, it’s very clear what is going on: The protagonists are a bunch of lunatics who keep hurling themselves into the “suck zones” of tornadoes, which keep recurring with mind-numbing regularity — once every 10 minutes, it seems.

There are even a few “throwaway scenes” of dubious subtlety. Bill Paxton brings his new fiancee to “tornado central” where, while chasing twisters, he hopes to persuade his ex-wife to sign the divorce papers. Still other “throwaway scenes” develop the heavies, who try to race the good guys to each new funnel, only to lose their way. The bad guys finally get blown away — literally — but it’s never quite clear why they’re bad guys in the first place.

Not surprisingly, the personal stories in “Mission: Impossible” and “Twister” do not exactly elicit the emotional nuances of, say, “Jules and Jim.” Indeed one can’t help but wonder why Tom Cruise, who co-produced “Mission: Impossible” under his deal with Paramount, didn’t give himself something more to do as an actor — or for that matter, at least a better haircut.

One must assume that Cruise, as a producer, understands that the characters are really there to serve the effects, not the other way around. It turns out that earlier drafts — by Robert Towne, Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”) — actually included the semblance of a love story involving Cruise and Emmanuelle Beart, the lovely French actress. In the editing process, however, those subplots were surrendered before the tyranny of pacing. The action must keep pounding along, it was decreed, and characters must not get in the way. As a result, the Beart character is left hanging there, like a curious artifact of a past movie epoch.

“THIS IS A TRANSITIONAL PERIOD in moviemaking,” reflects one of the movie’s writers. “Audiences are looking for a high-tech fun ride, not for an emotional jolt. My hope is that there also will be room in Hollywood for the emotional movies.”

Well, maybe. But meanwhile, folks, I think we should do something to honor those writers who labor in the wilderness of effects movies. Consider their plight: They know their work will go through many writers, many drafts and many committees. They know that, in the end, the wizards manning the computers carry a lot more weight than the wretched writers, who are sort of anachronisms whom no one can figure out how to replace as yet.

Hence my proposal: The exact name of the award is up for grabs, but maybe we should face the issue dead on and call it, “Best Screenplay by an Acknowledged Anachronism.” That would sum it up just fine.

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