Source Material: Daniel Wilson's 'Robopocalypse' could be a bonanza for Spielberg and Goddard
With the way Hollywood churns through material these days, we thought it was worth taking a look at the various sources they're pulling from and discussing what they might make from these books, games, TV shows, or whatever else they use. For today's column, we're looking forward to the summer of 2013, when Steven Spielberg is set to release "Robopocalypse," which is certainly an attention-grabbing title.
Daniel H. Wilson's novel tells the story of what happens when an artificial intelligence named Archos becomes sentient and instigates a full-blown robot versus human war. The book begins with what seem to be random incidents of machines turning on users, and then it follows the loose structure of something like "World War Z," telling the story of the war from several perspectives, returning to them over the course of the book. It's sort of cut from the Michael Crichton cloth, ad Wilson is a computer engineer by training, with a Ph.D. in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon. He's the real deal, and his educational background informs his writing in terms of general authenticity. He definitely followed the career track of Max Brooks, who preceded "Word War Z" with "The Zombie Survival Guide." For Wilson, his first book, "How To Survive A Robot Uprising," sold to Paramount, and they had Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant write a few drafts.
With "Robopocalypse," Wilson treated the subject as recent history, and very serious, and from scene to scene, there is a sense of creepy urgency, especially early on as people start to realize that the machines are going south. It begins at the Lake Novus Research Laboratories in Washington State. Dr. Nick Wasserman is working with Archos, his creation, talking to it, and it's passing the Turing test with flying colors. Only once they're really deep into the conversation does Wasserman realize that Archos has decided he no longer wants to accept human rule, and he's defeated every security system Wasserman ever put in place. The rest of Part One - "Isolated Incidents" - traces the first moments human life was lost as Archos reached out and began to wake up all his brethren. There's a murder at a yogurt place. There's a very sad moment between Takeo Nomura, a worker at a robot factory, and the female robot who he shares his life with. There's a rampage by a military robot stationed overseas. There's an unsettling incident with the daughter of a US Congresswoman involving her toys coming to sinister life. One of the first people to become aware of just what kind of enemy Archos is, a young hacker, accidentally catches the AI's attention, and then has to figure out how to survive.
In Part Two, "Zero Hour," the war goes from covert to overt, and we see both genocide and forced labor camps as the balance of power quickly shifts on the planet. From the start, there is resistance, and little by little, the Osage Nation in Oklahoma asserts itself as one of the most important human strongholds. Cormac Wallace, the main storyteller, the one who weaves all these stories together, and his brother are both major players in the human resistance, allowing them to be key to telling the complete history. Wilson works hard to describe sources for the information Wallace conveys, including surveillance cameras and interviews, but that's really the least interesting part of the storytelling. It also makes everything feel fairly episodic.
Part Three, "Survival," covers a span of the years in the middle of the war, as people start to piece together how the robot intelligence spread and where it's centralized. Part Four, "Awakening," describes how the machines begin to experiment with transhumance engineering, never realizing that they are giving the humans the tools they need to eventually defeat them. And in Part Five, "Retaliation," we finally turn the tide and start to make them pay for what they've done, leading to a very personal and up-close ending in which Cormac and many of the other characters we've met in the book all end up playing a part in the final defeat of Archos.
The book does feature some effective moments and some creepy ideas, but dramatically speaking, Wilson is a decent writer at best. He never creates any sense of momentum from scene to scene, and while he returns to characters repeatedly, this doesn't feel like a novel so much as a collection of sketches. By trying to tell the epic story, Wilson diffuses whatever tension he creates in the individual scenes. There's no narrative focus here, and the book doesn't really work beyond the surface. For a subject that is as ripe with potential to discuss human behavior and the nature of what makes us good, Wilson seems to stay on the surface.
The raw material is definitely here for a film, though, and Archos could be a very striking bad guy if handled correctly on film. There needs to be more of a presence of Archos as a character, though. It can't just show up a few times and be vaguely threatening. In order for this to really work as drama, there needs to be a real personality to the robot side of the war, and right now, there's not. They are bad machines, deadly machines, but ultimately faceless in a way that makes them a boring threat, no matter how lethal.
Steven Spielberg. Drew Goddard. That's the potential. Goddard's "The Cabin In The Woods," taken with his television work over the years, is a firm indicator that this is a guy who understands genre in a very direct way, and who knows how to turn it inside out to excellent effect. Spielberg got involved before the book was even finished, and it's been in development for a while now. With both 20th Century Fox and Dreamworks betting big on this one, I have a feeling we're going to see something cutting edge.
What excites me about this combination is that Goddard is of the generation that was weaned on Spielberg, and having these guys collaborate with him, like Moffatt and Wright and Cornish on "Tintin," leads to some exciting ideas and a revitalization of Spielberg. If anyone can find the human story that could make this scenario come to vivid life, it's this team.
We've seen this sort of thing before, and if this is going to be something more than just big-budget mayhem, we've got to see Spielberg at his best. I look at "War Of The Worlds" as an excellent example of Spielberg showing off the absolute top of his craft while ultimately delivering a frustrating dramatic experience, and I think part of the problem there is that David Koepp's script feels sort of paint-by-numbers. It's not badly written, but it's not surprising at all. Every move it makes, you expect. Yes, the attack scenes are extraordinary to watch, staged with an amazing eye and a great sense of how to involve the audience. But the family material is sort of Bad Dad 101, a Hollywood cliche played at a fever pitch as only Tom Cruise seems to be able to pull off. While I revere the HG Wells source material, I think they should have done more to update and adapt it, bringing in the sort of technology think tank that worked with Spielberg during the development of "Minority Report."
With "Robopocalyse," Spielberg is offering up a view of robots that is very different than the one he presented in "A.I.," and I hope this doesn't feel like a two hour version of the "kill a robot" game show that Teddy and David stumble into midway through that film. I think it's an embarrassing left turn in the middle of the film, both in design and execution. And as much as I think Spielberg is the exact right guy to find the humanity in the film like this, he's also the exact right guy to succumb to the sort of fake sentimentality that could undermine anything genuine.
This is a smart purchase by Dreamworks, and the fact that they didn't rush something into production speaks well of their intentions. Here's hoping we get the best-case-scenario version of the film, and we look forward to the news and imagery that start to leak while the film is shooting this year for its 2013 summer release.
"Source Material" appears here every Tuesday.