Author: Andrew Niccol
Writer’s Potential: 7
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Dawn. An old bus carrying laborers passes through town. Two of them — MYLAR KLINE and his younger brother, Castro — seek shelter in a boarding house run by VERA, one of the few attractive people in this blighted area. Her eight-year-old son, HECTOR, takes an immediate shine to Mylar — and, once Mylar discovers Hector’s obsession with crossing the border, Mylar returns the affection. Vera explains to Mylar and Castro that they’ve arrived to replace workers killed by a virus. Neither seem pleased by this.
While getting water, Mylar runs into Yaeger, who introduces himself and gives Mylar a sales pitch on his river-crossing services. At the boarding house, Castro hypes up the land across the border with the help of an old photograph of a beautiful woman, supposedly from the opposing country. Mylar shrugs off his brother’s unbridled optimism. The next day, at the factory, Mylar spots Yaeger. Castro puts him off, saying they don’t need any help if they go quickly. Mylar warns him against rushing, but Castro doesn’t want the virus to take him before he has the chance to flee the country.
A guard named FRANCO drops by Vera’s boarding house with a box of fresh strawberries — a rare delicacy in this world — sent from August Gideon. Vera feels uncomfortable taking such an extravagant gift, but Franco fears returning to Gideon, so she gives them away to children of the village.
Later that night, Castro awakens Mylar and insists that they must go now. Outside, Castro shows Mylar a thick fog that masks the river. He’s stolen a polysterene pad from the factory that he intends to use as a raft. Mylar doesn’t believe it’s a good idea, but Castro goes ahead with it. Just before Mylar changes his mind, he spots something in the distance — border guards on boats, using fire to cut apart the fog. Mylar warns Castro, who doesn’t see the boats and refuses to turn around. Mylar goes after him, grabs him, punches him to keep him from continuing to cross. Meanwhile, Gideon and his guards open fire on dozens of other crossers.
As a result of his misguided attempt, Castro has contracted the lethal virus. The infirmary has no serum, but it’s a lost cause, anyway — Castro is gone. Meanwhile, Yaeger and several townspeople and Travel Bureau members gather to watch a fuzzy satellite feed of television from across the border.
Mylar has gotten Castro cremated. Ignoring his own personal safety, Mylar begins climbing the border fence, so he can scatter Castro’s ashes in the direction of the border, hoping that maybe some bits will make it across. He’s grabbed by guards and taken to Gideon. Gideon tortures him by feeding him vile, tainted soil. Townspeople gather to help pump his stomach and clean him up as soon as Gideon lets him free.
Yaeger decides to try to school Mylar in his own border-crossing philosophy, which Mylar shrugs off for two reasons: (1) Yaeger’s still on the wrong side of the border, and (2) “God doesn’t put borders” on his land. At the boarding house, Mylar opens up to Vera a little bit, saying even this crummy border town is where he came from — “earthquake country.” Vera suggests Mylar should take the Travel Bureau a bit more seriously, as they know many, many ways not to cross the border.
At the Travel Board meeting, Yaegar explains the pros and cons of the four known ways to cross the river. Because of the tainted soil, tunneling gives all manner of trouble — worst of all, the fact that it can only bring you to the river, not across it. Flying over it won’t work because nobody has aviation skills and/or the tools and supplies necessary in this backward town. Circumventing the river means going past four other guard outposts and almost certain death. This only leaves going straight across the river, which is as difficult as anything else. It’s the only option that isn’t completely impossible.
Armed with that information, Mylar makes his first legitimate attempt to cross. Exploiting the fact that he’s double-jointed, Mylar crams himself into the casing of a 27” computer monitor, which is to be shipped across the border. Gideon senses this ruse, however, and catches him in the act. As a result, this time Mylar is forced to eat two buckets of dirt. He takes the opportunity to mention that he has not killed Mylar and will not kill him, because all of his border-crossing antics just strengthen the guards’ ability to anticipate future crossing attempts.
Later, Yaeger complains that Mylar needs to keep the Travel Bureau in the loop so they can help, but Mylar insists that he intends to work alone. Yaeger also confesses Vera’s deep-seated hatred of border-crossing and border guards: her husband, ANGELO, was one of the first to ever try to cross the border by tunneling. He actually made it past the border but was killed shorly thereafter. Reluctantly, Mylar reveals his latest, greatest plan: he’ll swim across the river, under the water so as not to be seen. There’s a slight hitch with his plan, however — the river dries up every year, leaving little more than a bed of sludge from sewage systems on the other side. The river only swells during flash floods in the spring.
One night, the power goes out — a recurring problem in the village that never seems to affect the border station. Enraged, a resident called LEON — who was using a phonograph to help put his baby to sleep — stirs up trouble. Just as the guards intend to react, Mylar approaches and saves Leon’s life by calming him down and asking him to listen to reason. From his tower, Gideon watches, impressed.
Vera’s son, Hector, goes to gather some cans of paint for Mylar, but he collapses — he’s been stricken with the virus. Unable to find any serum, Vera grants Hector’s dying wish. She delivers the paint to Mylar. Mylar uses it to paint the fence. The guards have been confused into thinking Gideon, who is away at another guard station, hired this painter, to the point where they’re actually helping Mylar get across the electrified portions by turning off the juice. Once he’s lulled them into total disinterest, Mylar springs his plan into action. Slowly but surely, he crawls underneath the sewage and sludge, using a breathing tube and nothing else. Just as he’s about to reach one of the waste pipes that will ensure his security, Gideon returns and realizes what has happened. He’s still too late — he can fire off only one round, which may or may not have hit Mylar as he leaps into the pipe.
Terrified for Hector, Vera begs Gideon for help. Unfortunately, he’s as useless as anyone else — he has no serum, either.
Amazingly, Mylar comes back. He bears a secret vial of serum, which he hands off to Vera before the expected torture. Afterward, despondent, Mylar demands to be let alone. He gradually reveals that the new country isn’t any better than the old one if you don’t have papers, if you aren’t a citizen. They caught him, he stole the serum from a soldier, and then they forced him back across the border.
To Mylar’s surprise, Gideon enlists his aid in repairing the River Road. He was an engineer, and since Mylar is so defeated by his border-crossing attempt, he agrees. This pleases none of the townspeople, but Mylar no longer seems to care. While in Gideon’s office, Mylar steals a book titled International Law. Distraught by his apathy, Vera agrees to a dinner date with Gideon. During this date, Mylar reads from the book and discovers something. He subtly passes by the windows of Gideon’s home, catching Vera’s attention but not the commander’s. She cuts the date short.
Mylar explains, first to Vera, then to everyone else, what he’s discovered: the border has always followed the river. If the route of the river changed, so would the border. So if he used the materials to repair the River Road in order to reroute the river onto the path of the road, all of them would be citizens of their neighboring country. Everyone thinks he’s a lunatic, but because of his enthusiasm, they all agree to help.
Gideon is suspicious of their seeming enjoyment of the hard-labor repairing the road. None of the guards understand how they can perform the repairs by digging, instead of using TNT. Mylar claims the explanation is over their head, but really, he’s hoarding the TNT for his plans. When the flash-floods come, he intends to blow the mouth of the river, permanently flooding the road.
Mylar enlists Yaeger’s aid in this mission, and as they prepare the explosives, Yaeger tells Mylar of his heroic attempts to cross the river — but what we see is Yaeger receiving a perfect opportunity to cross but freezing up, becoming too pretrified, until it’s too late. They split up, and Mylar reminds Yaeger of a flashlight signal that they use so Yaeger knows when to blow his half of the TNT.
There’s another hitch in their plans, though — suspicious, Gideon uncovers Yaeger’s stash of dynamite and has one of his lieutenants arrest him. Gideon then seeks out Mylar to prevent him from blowing the stash. The rains come, and a freak bolt of lightning ignites Yaeger’s half of the TNT. This strengthens Mylar’s resolve to blow his own, despite Gideon’s protests that he’s too close, he’ll blow himself up. Mylar’s willing to make the sacrifice — he lights the fuse.
It works like a charm. The road is flooded, and the following morning, soldiers from the other country cross their own fences to secure the new chunk of land. Humiliated, Gideon shoots himself. Meanwhile, both Yaeger and Mylar survived, and Mylar now carries Angelo’s birth certificate as proof that he was born on the right side of the new border.
The storyline, such as it is, builds some interesting scenarios for the impossible-to-cross river, giving Mylar quite a huge hurdle to overcome. The “let’s blow the river and change the border!” third act twist feels more like a deus ex machina and a waste of potential than anything else. It lacks the invention that this type of script requires — the implausible idea of sticking a double-jointed guy inside a large computer monitor had more cleverness to it, so one would think the final “gotcha!” ending would have more oomph than a river-rerouting. Up until that point, I was willing to overlook the other flaws because this world and some of its characters had intrigued me.
August Gideon’s character is a big problem because, other than his attraction to Vera — which comes across more as a plot device than a character trait — he has very little depth. He’s supposed to be the big villain, the personification of the impossible-to-cross bridge, but there’s no sense of quaking-in-our-boots terror. There’s also no sense of empathy for the idea that maybe he’s just a bureaucrat stuck in a miserable outpost in a country that’s falling apart. We just don’t get enough information about him to care one way or the other — we don’t know him well enough to love him, hate him, or love to hate him. He just exists, and his suicide was a major cop-out that the character, thin as he was, didn’t deserve.
As for the hot-button issue from which the script draws much of its story: I’m all for using the genre of science-fiction to create arm’s-length metaphors for contemporary problems, but this screenplay lacks the subtlety or grace required for a story like this. It’s too clearly drawn from the current strife at the U.S.-Mexico border and what some fear (or hope, depending on their perspective) the border will become, to the point where it should go one of two ways: either make it subtler (like, for instance, giving us a border that isn’t a giant, Rio Grande-esque river) or abandon it altogether and make this about a U.S.-Mexico conflict 50 years in the future. Embrace the potential political controversy, or negate it.
This script will only preach to the choir, which automatically limits the audience. The fact that it’s not an action-oriented science-fiction film will also reduce the potential audience — sci-fi is a great genre for audiences to avoid their personal woes for a couple of hours, but this is not escapist fare. This is a bleak reflection on current affairs that, even if they agree with the politics it preaches, audiences will likely avoid in droves — especially when it doesn’t provide a fair or viable solution to the current problem.
Posted by D. B. Bates on September 3, 2008 4:31 PM