Scavengers: Craft vs. Concept

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As an independent author and critic, I have a vested interest in independent films and books.  The joy of the hunt comes when I come across another indie artist who has produced something really beautiful or unique that deserves to be celebrated.

Writer and director Travis Zariwny’s 2013 film, Scavengers, is not such a success.  It is a pretty terrible movie.  But when I come across a terrible film, I can still learn from it and improve myself as an artist by looking at what doesn’t work, what does (as even really bad films are rarely bad at everything).

Scavengers is a movie about a pair of human starship crews caught in a race to possess an alien artifact of great power.  It’s a combination chase story and hero’s quest, but it fails to deliver in a couple of ways.

There is an endless debate in storytelling between concept and craft.  To oversimplify, one school of thought is that a great concept will lead to a great story without great writing.  The opposing school says that even an terrible story idea can give a good story if it is presented well enough.  Scavengers pushes me even closer to the craft side of the story.

Scavengers really interested me in the first act of the film.  There are some great ideas and characters in this story.  (Characters are ideas.)  The Revelator (seriously?) drops in and stumbles across an artifact.  The ship design is neat, the visuals are low-budget but that doesn’t count against them in my book.  The Revelator‘s crew is a mix of memorable character ideas.  There is Twelve the death-prone clone (he’s offed himself eleven times since they brought him on-board and only has one life left) played by Mark Wystrach.  There is Doc (it turns out she actually goes by Dock because she was a dock orphan raised, educated, and protected by the crew to the point that she now serves as engineer and ship’s medic) done very well by Jamie Strange.  The tempestuous love relationship between Captain Wake (roark Critchlow) and his lady first officer (Emerson) is a neat concept (he’s the best scavenger but it’s a dangerous job and she constantly gets furious with him for getting hurt).  The Revelator’s crew do a lot to salvage a mediocre script and dialogue with strong non-verbals and good on-screen presence.  Olos Nah (Tyler Poelle) the ship’s pilot

If the enemy crew had provided the same caliber of acting the hackneyed script could have been salvaged, but the inconsistency shines through here.  The Gutter‘s crew is too terrible to be believed.  Captain Jekel (a role inflicted on Sean Patrick Flanery) runs a crew of raving psychopaths impossible to imagine working together.  The set gets darker, and the acting gets exponentially worse.  Sean Patrick Flanery’s Captain Jekel is constantly twitching, rubbing his face or someone else on set as if he is perpetually on the brink of a gran mal seizure.

Breathtaker (the female psycho assassin played by Kelley Whilden) actually delivers the following lines.  “Your hatred for him runs seductively deep.”  and “Pleasure is the ultimate destroyer, a sick, pathetic weakness.  It’s a weapon I wield with laser precision.”  Both of those lines are crappy, lazy writing aimed at teenage boys with BDSM proclivities.  It isn’t that a femme fatale cannot work, but those lines are delivered with NO expression or body language whatsoever.  You can’t talk about how turned on you are while staring dispassionately at a computer screen instead of the person you claim is seducing you.  And perhaps the character has such sick and warped views of sexuality, but I have never read a believable character that twisted who had it as a  mission statement in their pocket.  That line is typical of the crap dished out by the bad guys, which would almost be bearable if the crew of the Revelator didn’t show them up every other scene so that the overacting seemed worse by comparison.

The rotten cheese doesn’t stop there.  I’m leaving out Overkill, the gunnery officer.  Or Kaitlin Riley’s character, Scavenger, because a film called Scavengers needs a character named Scavenger on a ship chasing the actual scavengers.  No ambiguity there.

The film has some great settings, a ship graveyard on the edge of a civil war, a pair of dark planets nearly invisible to sensors, a data pusher named Data Ocean who makes himself invaluable by having all the hyperspace coordinates.  (Of course, in case names no one would ever walk around with outside of WWE aren’t enough to prove how psycho the bad guy is Jekel has to kill him anyway.)

There are standard low-budget crimes committed here.  A bar-slaughter when asking a question and offering twenty bucks of change would have sufficed, Breathtaker shown as naked as the rating would allow for a whole conversation for no particular point, lots of hissing and growling with no change in mood from the bad guys, etc.

The final and unforgivable craft problem is the conclusion.  The story just doesn’t build up to a technical climax.  There isn’t a really dark moment.  There isn’t enough tension built up to relieve with a great act of ship handling.  Then, to prove just how terrible the story is, the heroes’ victories are proved meaningless as the bad guys get the object in the end anyway.

I felt like the director had punched me in the face and shouted, “Ha, I made you suffer through this for nothing!  Gotcha!”

I watched the film on Hulu+, so I have no means to get my money back.

If you have Hulu+, watch the first 25 minutes of this film,  because the opening is pretty good for its budget.  Everything after isn’t worth your time.  Consider knitting something.  It will be better entertainment.

I wouldn’t be anywhere near this upset if there hadn’t been enough great ideas here for a really good low-budget movie.  Some of the actors have real talent, so their painful performances must come from the director.  Move over, Uwe Boll, you have competition for the worst sci-fi and fantasy director of the century, and that’s saying something.

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