Welcome to The Last Sci-Fi Blog, a column dedicated to science fiction on film.
A writer being replaced on a major blockbuster project is so common in Hollywood that it's really not worth writing about. It's barely news. That's why I can only shrug at the report that Mark Protosevich has been taken off the long-in-the-works film adaptation of Mass Effect and replaced with Morgan Davis Foehl. Of course he was. Did anyone expect a potential tentpole like this to only go through one writer? That's not how this business works.
However, this does give us an excuse to talk about Mass Effect itself, which may very well be the greatest science-fiction video game ever made (and its sequels aren't too shabby either). This project will have to fight an uphill battle if it wants to be anything resembling a good movie -- video game adaptations have poor track records at best and the true joys of Mass Effect lie in giving the player a great deal of control over the story they're playing, which is not a particularly cinematic trait. Still, there's potential for a tremendous film here and, if handled properly, the cinematic Mass Effect could be the next Star Wars.
Here are five baby steps to take if they don't want to screw it up. Of course, these are just my own opinions, but they also happen to be the correct opinions.
1. Define Commander Shephard
Here's the thing about Commander Shepard, the lead character in the Mass Effect trilogy: he/she is you. Shepard is a complete blank slate at the start of the game and it's up to you, the player, to define who this person is. You pick the gender. You decide the personal background and reputation. You design the character's physicality from scratch. Then, as you play the game, you make moral and ethical choices that impact you, your universe and the way people react to you. Figuring out who your Shepard is may the greatest joy of Mass Effect... and there's no way in hell that's an option for the movie. Whoever ends up writing this thing has to decide who the cinematic Shepard is going to be. Is he a tough but fair soldier? Is she a scheming, renegade scoundrel? Don't take the easy route. Don't let the movie version of Shepard be a typical battle-hardened space marine. If a video game can let you build your own custom nuanced character, than any decent screenwriter can follow suit.
2. Use the Universe
Here's the Mass Effect universe in a nutshell: in the future, human space travelers discover ancient alien technology (called Mass Effect Relays) that allow them to journey across the galaxy in the blink of an eye. However, they quickly discover a galaxy populated by dozens of alien races who have had this tech for centuries and have already established alliances, tenuous peace agreements, trade routes and even a sort of galactic UN. The story picks up a few years after humanity has made contact with the rest of galactic civilization and finds the human race being treated as the new kid on the block, second-class citizens to the more established and powerful races. The plot of Mass Effect isn't just Commander Shepard going on a mission to stop the bad guys: he's going on a mission that's putting his entire race in the spotlight for the first time and a victory will mean new opportunities for Earth... and possibly a seat on the all-powerful Council. It's a complex, layered world that combines the politics and grounded aesthetics of Battlestar Galactica with the "Holy Crap, Look At All of Those Amazing Aliens" elements of Star Wars. It's one of the most unique sci-fi settings in recent memory and the filmmakers behind the movie would be foolish to not explore this fascinating, layered world.
3. Character First
Although Mass Effect is full of gameplay that finds you shooting evil robots in the face, the gameplay is, at best, adequate. What makes it truly special is the story and what makes that story truly special is the cast of characters. As Commander Shepard's mission grows more intense and dangerous, he begins collecting a team of allies, each of them with their own motivations and backstories. In the game, chatting with your crew and eventually prying their personal histories out of them by gaining their trust is more exciting and fulfilling than shooting rockets at alien mercenaries. Game developer Bioware has become renowned for its storytelling abilities and its carefully drawn and likable characters and they have, in a sense, beaten Hollywood at their own game. The movie version of Mass Effect will need to beat back if it wants to impress the fans.
4. This Is a Military Story, Not an Action Story
This may sound like splitting hairs, but it will make all of the difference in the world. Mass Effect is the story of a group effort, of a ragtag squad of soldiers on an impossible mission. It isn't (and shouldn't be) the Commander Shepard Action Hour. In fact, the filmmakers should take a note from the game itself, which emphasizes planning, tactics, cover and utilizing your team over run-and-gun action. The action sequences in Mass Effect should feel more like a sci-fi spin on Band of Brothers instead of something out of a Resident Evil movie.
5. End with a Bang
Although the first game was made with every intention of making a trilogy, it ends as all first entries in a potential series should: definitively. The final stretch of Mass Effect is one of the great extended action sequences in any medium and despite being the first in a series, it still feels like one of the biggest and most satisfying conclusions ever crafted. The stakes are huge, the situation is dire and the action is as absurdly, dramatically staged as any you've ever seen. How many films these days are made to kickstart franchises and how many of them end with a whimper so they can stretch the story out across more films? Too many. Mass Effect is evidence that you don't have to this. Go big or go home, guys.