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03/09/2002 - THE TIME MACHINE


Picture this: You buy a bus ticket to Pittsburgh. You love
Pittsburgh, can't do without it, can't wait to get there. But halfway
through, the bus driver decides he'd rather go to St. Louis. So he steers
the Greyhound in that direction. Pretty frustrating if you're that
ticket-buyer, right?

That's the feeling you get after watching THE TIME MACHINE. The problem
lies in the through-lines.

What's a through-line? Think of it as your main plot (or conflict, or
quest) pushing your story forward. Of course, some scripts have many
plots: guy wants to rob bank, girl wants to marry guy, guy's brother wants
to raise trained seals for Circus Vargas, etc. But one of these must
stand tall over the others so you know what your story is about. The
through-line is the spike holding your shish kebab of a script together.
Without it, your story is a rambling, disconnected series of incidents
with no direction whatsoever.

Now THE TIME MACHINE doesn't make the goof of having no through-line. It
makes the goof of having two through-lines. This causes the movie to
change direction more abruptly than that Greyhound bus.

(Spoilers are coming so if you haven't seen the movie yet don't read any

The first through-line involves Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) going
back in time to save his fiancee's life. When he discovers in a FINAL
DESTINATION-like twist that you can't rewrite history, Alexander travels
to the future for help.

But what he gets is a new through-line. The subterranean Morlocks are
chomping down on the helpless Eloi, and Alexander is the only one who can
stop them. Soon all thoughts of his fiancee and changing the past are
gone. Now it's about sticking it to the Morlocks and changing the future,
pure and simple. In effect, the first through-line has been dropped
mid-stream for the second.

Now don't get me wrong. Both the fiancee and Eloi-Morlock through-lines
are solid in and of themselves. The problem comes from trying to use both
in the same script. They are too different from one another to mesh into a
coherent whole; it's like two TWILIGHT ZONE episodes were slapped together
and sold as a single feature. And shifting from one "episode" to another
can't help but create a disjointed, meandering quality that ultimately
stalls out the narrative.

So what's the lesson? If you have many stories to tell, just make sure to
tell them one at a time.

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked
as a development executive and a story analyst. He is currently a
screenwriter living in Los Angeles.

Responses, comments and general
two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com


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