The Crop: Voltron
The Studio/Production Company: 20th Century Fox/New Regency
The Director: Agnes Varda (Unconfirmed)
The Writer: Justin Marks
The Actors: Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach, Robert Mitchum, Martin Sheen and Paul Sorvino (Also Unconfirmed)
The Premise: Five years after the Robeast apocalypse, the fate of the Earth, nay the entire universe, rests on the shoulders of a giant robot formed by five separate, mechanical lions.
The Context: For all their many faults, one thing the Baby Boomers got right (i.e. for a brief period) was the whole escapist entertainment aesthetic. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis… these guys drew on their favorite serials, books and television shows to create effortlessly entertaining amalgams that honored their unpretentious origins by never taking themselves too seriously. Sure, Dante and Zemeckis were skilled at smuggling subversive, satirical themes into classics like Gremlins and Back to the Future, but mainstream audiences were having too grand a time to care that they were being skewered. On the surface, these films just wanted to dazzle you with crackerjack storytelling; ponderousness was for prestige pictures.
Now, everything has to be dark or mopey or, worst of all, EXTREME!!! Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End opened with a child getting hanged; Spider-Man 3 was an unfocused referendum on forgiveness (nicely parodied here); Transformers was so intense that it allegedly flirted with an R-rating. And all of these movies ran well over two hours. There’s no reason why a film based on a fucking amusement park ride should run seven minutes longer than The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Likewise, there’s no reason these movies should be so goddamn gloomy when their origins aren’t only ephemeral, but solely motivated by profit (Spider-Man excluded). It’s one thing to strive to transcend ludicrous source material, as both Transformers and the first Pirates of the Caribbean did, but quite another to pump it full of undue seriousness; these movies are supposed to be trading on our tenuous affection for, respectively, toys and a family vacation to Disneyworld. Other than someone swiping your Optimus Prime figure from your backpack or Space Mountain being shuttered for repairs, why so freakin’ dour? Besides, going dark just to score cool points with the teens and twentysomethings is a great way to alienate the families who should be lining your pockets in the next revenue window (i.e. DVD).
But "going dark" seems to be working just fine in theatrical, which means every other movie based on some bullshit nugget of 1980s nostalgia needs to be be edgy. Case in point: New Regency’s live-action rendition of Voltron. Those of us who bothered to grow up and acquire a cultural frame of reference most likely remember Voltron as an agreeably stupid afterschool time-waster on par quality-wise with Transformers and G.I. Joe. These shows didn’t capture our imagination; they just kept us from doing our homework one half-hour block at a time. Next thing you knew, it was time for dinner, then Benny Hill or The Muppet Show, then whatever was on prime time that night, then bed, then shame at school the next day for not having memorized the state capitals. And repeat until private teacher-parent conference. Then repeat some more. Then Dad leaves. Then Camus. And so on.
It’s natural to feel a tinge of nostalgia whenever you hear the Voltron theme song or stumble across the opening segment on YouTube, but why can’t this wistfulness end there? Why feign a deeper emotional attachment? Why am I trying to understand a segment of fandom I typically dismiss outright?
The Script: Because they’re responsible for Justin Marks’s surpassingly idiotic screenplay, that’s why. To Marks’s credit, he’s been on quite a run lately: the young scribe’s got a Green Arrow something or other called Supermax cooking at Warner Brothers, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe in development at Silver Pictures. Good for him. Personally, if I were this artistically unambitious, I’d drain a bottle of Souther Comfort and put a bullet in my brain, but different strokes for different folks, right?
Speaking of suicide, there is an oppressive emptiness to Marks’s 5/23/07 draft of Voltron; though it cribs heavily from Star Wars, the creative desperation plunges the reader into a metaphorical River Ouse. "If this is the future of mainstream filmmaking," one drones above the pocket-muffled clatter of stones, "then let me be done with it."
As mentioned above, Voltron takes place five years after the Earth has been ravaged by their Robeast overlords. Marks flatters himself by depicting his world as "a cross between Escape from New York and a Vonnegut apocalypse fantasy". He does not cite a particular Vonnegut tome because he clearly has not read one. Better, then, to rephrase his post-apocalyptic setting as "a cross between 1990: The Bronx Warriors and Tom Sizemore’s bedroom".
With the efficacy of a hack plotter, Marks quickly introduces us to our protagonist, Keith Kogan, who, like everyone else marooned in Manhattan, lives underground to avoid the wrath of the Robeasts. In one of Marks’s most original flourishes, he opts to write Keith not as a sweater-vest wearing Poindexter with chronic asthma, but as a tough guy… a rebel. Per Marks, "This is a not a guy who plays well with others. He’d rather run through fire than do what you told him. He’d rather saunter than amble. He’d rather take ‘No’ for an answer than be a walking cliche. He’d rather wait until he receives a shut-off notice to pay his gas bill. He’d rather read a Choose Your Own Adventure book front-to-back. He’d rather be pedal boating. He’d rather not wipe his ass." I may be embellishing, but I’d rather you not know this.
Like most heroes, Keith has a sidekick, and like most sidekicks, this one’s black. But fear not: Lance McClain is no dim-witted stereotype; this feller’s a streetwise soul brother with personality to burn (though not in a pissed-off-at-society, Watts Riot kind of way; we’ve moved beyond that thanks to Meteor Man). Lance is kinda like the Gregory Hines to Keith’s Billy Crystal. Wait, they were both jovial in that. How ’bout Ken Norton to Keith’s James Mason? Better? Lance also settles too readily for fat women, and gets bizarre cravings for Arthur Treacher’s.
Keith and Lance are basically in charge of an underground society that relies on them for essentials like food and water. This chafes Keith something fierce because he’s a Han Solo-esque scoundrel who sticks his neck out for nobody, you hear me, nobody. And this is a mean old world, to boot, as evidenced by this sign posted in their underground dwelling: "Sexual Assaults Will Be Punishable By Execution". That’s right. They’re not punishable yet, but they sure will be once the pertinent legislation gets passed by the Underground Hobo Senate.
Everything changes when Keith goes topside to loot supplies from a downed helicopter that was supposed to ferry a pair of mysterious interlopers – the beautiful Allura and the fat-and-ugly Hunk – back to Mexico. The travelers happen upon Keith and Lance rather conveniently in their secret underground compound, and convince them to give them safe (if bumpy) passage south of the border. Keith balks, but when he’s offered more propane reserves than he can imagine (and, mind you, he can imagine quite a bit), he agrees to haul Allura and Hunk down Mexico way in his converted M2A3 Bradley Tank.
Only they wind up switching it out for a monster truck owned by Keith’s rival, Dukane, because a) it’s a faster ride, and b) the first act needed a little more action. Still, it nullifies the whole Millennium Falcon appeal of the Bradley Tank. Maybe this is misdirection. Maybe this is Justin Marks.
En route to Mexico, Keith and the gang pick up the Spritle-like Pidge, who, in this iteration of Voltron, is a mute victim of child abuse. How cute. Pidge reminded me a little of the towheaded skateboarder kid from Over the Edge, but only because I was frantically trying to remember how a good movie played whilst reading this script. By the way, would it surprise you to learn that Pidge turns out to be an electronics whiz who installs the necessary circuitry that allows the lions to work? And are you wondering how the lions finally figure into this parade of derivativeness?
The "Lionbots" are being built at a stronghold in Mexico (outsourcing bastards!) governed by Coran, Allura’s father. And we get our first taste of Lionbot action on page thirty-six when Allura commandeers one to save the gang from a particularly nasty, spider-like Robeast (Jon Peters swoons). I’m told Marks is a very young screenwriter who may yet amount to something, so I’m going to be nice here: he writes action very cleanly. If New Regency lucks out and locks down a decent-sized budget for Voltron, these sequences might not get rewritten.
But it’s in Mexico where Marks gets into Allura’s backstory, and to call it convoluted would be like saying John Wayne Gacy enjoyed hiding things. Here’s the deal: Allura and her father are from the planet Arus of the Domus system (less warlike than the neighboring Domi system). They are over twelve thousand years old. And they’re hiding a set of five keys that emit an energy "so complex and so powerful that the Drules would do anything to possess them". The Drules, by the way, are the Robeasts. And if the Drules get ahold of the five keys, they’ll pretty much have the run of the universe.
To avert this looming catastrophe, Cronan and Allura have overseen the construction of five lionbots operable via "psychosomatic circuitry", which is a fancy way of saying "You think, they move". This is extraordinarily asinine, but, then again, this is Voltron we’re talking about here; do you want to add several pages of "Lionbot" training to what is already a protracted origin story?
Which brings up another critical flaw: why does this have to be an origin story? Every episode of Voltron dispensed with the series’ setup in under two minutes. No one gave two morning constitutionals about how Keith and company got together; you just wanted to see the lions form a giant robot and put it to a bunch of snarling Robeasts. A half-hour well burned. But Marks’s script follows the origin playbook by the letter; ergo, we don’t get a fully functional Voltron until page 102 (of 110). When we do, the action is pretty solid (Voltron and the mega-Robeast proceed to literally throw each other all over the globe), but it’s too late. Character development, at least how it’s handled in Marks’s draft, stalls the script before it can ever find first gear; no one save for Voltron devotees (i.e. the socially maladjusted) would ever sit through this crap. Plus, it’s obsessed with having an edge; there’s even a Star Wars-y scene where the crew returns to the base in Mexico to find hundreds of defenseless humans slaughtered.
Yes, Transformers grossed $300 million domestic, but Bay’s film was based on a sensationally popular toyline and bore the all-important imprimatur of Steven Spielberg (and if you think audiences can’t feel that shit, you’re a fool). Voltron has no such pedigree; the toys weren’t all that popular, and Mark Gordon ain’t exactly a hit-maker. If I were Fox, I’d kibosh this project quickly; there’s got to be another potential tentpole you can greenlight pre-strike. And if not, no tentpole at all has got to be preferable to sinking $100 million-plus into a guaranteed loser.
Why It Could Be Good: A page one rewrite by someone who understands that this is a kids movie.
Would It Should Suck: It’s a 20th Century Fox event film.
What I’ll Be Rambling About Next: Fuck if I know. The Everly Brothers’ influence on socialized medicine. This script did a number on me. Time for a drink!