Aug 20, 2020
Kurtzman & Orci to direct (and ruin) Venom, Star Trek 3
In case you haven’t heard the news, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who together are one of the most profitable screenwriting duos ever, have decided to officially part ways, and will no longer collaborate on future scripts. I haven’t been quite this despondent since Hall and Oates split up, but never fear, everyone; despite this conscious uncoupling, both men will continue to individually write exactly the kind of screenplays you expect from them for years to come.
But more importantly, both men look poised to take the next big step in their careers: Soon they’ll also be directing the same mediocre films they write.
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Alex Kurtzman has been hired to direct Venom, the Spider-Man spinoff that Sony swears it’s really going to make. The last we heard of this film, Kurtzman and Orci were working on a script, but that was before the breakup, so the project’s status is unknown. But considering the negative reaction to Amazing Spider-Man 2, which they also wrote, it remains to be seen if Sony will let either of them near its planned Spider-verse again. (Spoiler alert: They will.)
And in late breaking news, Roberto Orci, already writing the screenplay for the next Star Trek film, is now considered the “frontrunner” to direct the film as well. This, despite having no prior experience directing a film, let alone one of this magnitude.
So with the two men looking to move up the showbiz ladder and expand their already vast influence in Hollywood, is this bad news for Star Trek fans, Spider-Man fans, and fans of sci-fi and comic book movies in general?
I’ll answer that question in due time, but first, let’s make sure everyone’s up to speed.
Who are Kurtzman and Orci?
Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (both born 1973) are two of the highest profile screenwriters currently working. It’s been less than a decade since their first feature film, and the movies they’ve worked on together have collectively earned $3.7 billion in worldwide revenue.
As teenagers, they both attended Crossroads, a private school whose alumni includes plenty of celebrity kids like Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson, Jake Busey, Jason Ritter, and the Deschanel sisters. There, Kurtzman and Orci bonded over their love of movies, and after college, Kurtzman got a job working for Sam Raimi’s production company, which at the time was producing the syndicated shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. Kurtzman and Orci submitted a spec script for an episode of Hercules, and eventually wrote 16 episodes of the series. By the end of its run, they had worked their way up to being the show’s head writers.
From there, they moved on to producing and writing Alias, the ABC spy drama created by up and coming writer-director J.J. Abrams. After Alias ended, it wasn’t long before they got their first break in the world of feature films, polishing up the screenplay for the DreamWorks film The Island, directed by fellow Crossroads alum Michael Bay.
The Island ended up becoming an inauspicious way to kick off a career in movies, particularly when DreamWorks and Bay were sued for copyright infringement by the makers of the low budget ‘70s sci-fi film Parts: The Clonus Horror.
You may remember the eerie similarities between The Island and Clonus being detailed extensively on this very site. And if you don’t remember that, you may recall hearing about it on Cracked when they shamelessly copied my comparison screenshots without permission (it’s ironic, because the article about rip-offs is itself a rip-off!).
You may also recall that all parties involved eventually agreed to an out-of-court settlement (mostly shutting out the original Clonus screenwriter) which of course included the standard gag order and no admission of wrongdoing. So it’s still unclear as to how the obvious Clonus similarities made their way into The Island. Were they in the original script by Caspian Tredwell-Owen, or did Kurtzman and Orci steer things in that direction during their rewrites? We might never know, but given that it took Tredwell-Owen until 2012 to get his follow-up screenplay made into a film (and an extremely low budget film at that) while Kurtzman and Orci went on to become millionaires, it’s clear who took the brunt of the blame for the lawsuit.
Despite the controversy, and despite The Island going down in flames as Bay’s biggest flop, the two men continued to get high profile gigs. They next wrote The Legend of Zorro, a campy sequel derided for its flimsy plot and clichéd dialogue. Then came another sequel, Mission: Impossible III, directed by their old friend J.J. Abrams, which fared somewhat better with audiences and critics.
Thanks partly to that film, Abrams was tapped to direct the Star Trek reboot, and he brought Kurtzman and Orci along with him to write a contrived script that violated all known laws of time and space and common sense to get Kirk in the captain’s chair by the end of the movie. Michael Bay then called on them again to polish up his Transformers script, which started out as a screenplay called Transformers: Prime Directive by John Rogers (who also co-wrote The Core), but by the time the movie came out, the duo had somehow earned sole screenplay credit.
The one-two punch of both of these movies earning obscene amounts of money made Kurtzman and Orci a hot commodity. From there, they penned several big, dumb sequels that were even bigger and dumber than the originals: the godawful Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the aforementioned Amazing Spider-Man 2, and the hopelessly convoluted Star Trek Into Darkness.
During all this, they also found time to write the screenplay for the snoozefest that was Cowboys & Aliens, co-create Fringe and Sleepy Hollow for Fox, develop the Hawaii Five-O remake for CBS, and do an uncredited polish on Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. And that’s not even getting into all the various projects where one or both of them have served as producers.
Okay, so what’s wrong with them?
In short, the two have become incredibly rich and powerful in an extremely short period of time by writing a lot of awful material. Don’t get me wrong; these guys aren’t the next Seltzerberg. In fact, they’re something more insidious. Because they don’t write movies for audiences. They write movies for studio executives and directors and accountants and other producers like themselves.
Their scripts are soulless, by-the-numbers efforts that can always be counted on to play it safe. In the cases where their movies succeed, it’s in spite of their scripts, not because of them. While watching a Kurtzman/Orci film, one has no emotional investment in anything occurring onscreen. Things happen for two hours, and sometimes quite loud things happen, and then they stop happening and everyone goes home.
Perhaps their inability to create real conflict and drama is why Kurtzman and Orci instead overcomplicate their screenplays, usually by bringing in shadowy conspiracy elements. The Khan/Section 31 boondoggle of Star Trek Into Darkness is well known by now (and really, what was up with that insane nonsense about hiding people inside torpedoes, anyway?). Amazing Spider-Man 2 also has a subplot (admittedly, borrowed from the comics) about a big Oscorp conspiracy where Peter has to learn the shocking truth about his father. And even in something like Transformers, you have a secret branch of the government called “Sector 7” that’s somehow able to cover up the existence of 30 foot tall robots.
But in their efforts to create complexity and mystery, Kurtzman and Orci mostly just turn out stories that barely make sense. People call them lazy hacks, but I don’t think that’s true. A lazy writer would do a simple, linear, A-to-B plot. It takes real work to turn straightforward comic book/action stories into films this incomprehensible.
I didn’t mention it earlier, but Venom, it if gets made, will not be Kurtzman’s directorial debut—that honor goes to 2012’s People Like Us with Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks, an odd, one-off character drama written by the duo. But instead of revealing talents no one knew they had, the movie seems to mostly confirm that they’re probably not holding back much when they crank out vapid franchise installments.
They might be hacks, but they’re not pandering hacks. They’re not talking down to us. The scripts they write are about as intelligent as they are. In fact, most of their work seems to be the result of a couple of not-very-bright guys trying their hardest to write really smart movies.
There is of course a dark side to all the conspiracy elements of their films, which is that at least one of them believes in them for real. Orci is a 9/11 truther who previously tweeted about the collapse of WTC 7 (just, you know, asking questions), and on the day of the Boston Marathon bombings, he told his followers to look out for “evidence of Government drills” in Boston (coded language for suggesting the attack was a “false flag” operation by our own government).
And while it may be old news, it’s always worth revisiting how Orci got pissed off on the message board of a Star Trek fan site when contributor Joseph Dickerson dared to write an article saying the Trek franchise was “broken”. These are the highlights of Orci’s responses (note that all spelling/grammatical errors come from the original comments).
Orci: Having said that, two biggest Star Treks in a row with best reviews is hardly a description of “broken.” And frankly, your tone and attidude make it hard for me to listen to what might otherwise be decent notions to pursue in the future. Sorry, Joseph. As I love to say, there is a reason why I get to write the movies, and you don’t.
The implications of this are startling. It seems Orci is actually convinced that Hollywood is a meritocracy, and the only reason he gets to write billion-dollar films is because of his god-given talent. Clearly, it has nothing to do with say, coming from a wealthy family, or getting to attend an elite private school and make connections with famous/powerful families in the industry.
Orci: STID has infinetly more social commentary than Raiders in every Universe, and I say that with Harrison Ford being a friend. You lose credibility big time when you don’t honestly engage with the FUCKING WRITER OF THE MOVIE ASKING YOU AN HONEST QUESTION. You prove the cliche of shitty fans. And rude in the process. So, as Simon Pegg would say: FUCK OFF!
That’s a whole lot of craziness to unpack, but basically, earlier in the thread he asked for an example of a film that blended action and exploration better than his Star Trek movies, and someone reasonably offered up Raiders of the Lost Ark. And the bit at the end seems to be a reference to Simon Pegg’s reaction to Into Darkness being voted the worst Star Trek movie at the official Vegas convention.
Eventually, Orci sobered up and posted a much more coherent, contrite message. And he apologized on Twitter (sort of) before deleting his account. Regardless, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that his little message board tirade contributed in no small part to the end of Kurtzman and Orci’s working relationship. When this much money is at stake, I’d imagine the last thing you want to deal with is a writing partner who gets plastered and goes online to call the fans “shitty” and tell them to fuck off.
Also, am I the only one finding it hard to wrap my mind around the idea of someone who makes millions of dollars as a writer not having a basic grasp of English grammar? In his defense, the guy grew up in Mexico, but still, I’m pretty sure Kurtzman was the one doing all the typing.
Actually, I’m kind of wondering if either one of them has a mastery of the English language after reading the original script for Star Trek, which has loads of profanity in the stage directions, and at times reads like fanfic of the Maury Povich show.
Like their mentor J.J. Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci specialize in making films that are “good enough”. Good enough to make lots of money, good enough to get a grudging pass from critics, and good enough to make audiences shrug and go, “it’s okay, I guess, whatever”. (Also, for some reason there are droves of fanboys willing to defend them, though as long as I live I’ll never understand why some people are determined to go to the mat for mediocre films.) And with the two of them directing, this means we’re essentially going to have three slightly different versions of J.J. Abrams out there, all making exactly the same huge, profitable, empty films.
(You might notice that I haven’t mentioned their frequent collaborator, Damon Lindlelof, who co-wrote Cowboys & Aliens and Star Trek Into Darkness with them, and also has credits like Prometheus and World War Z to his name. Lindlelof definitely has the potential to turn this duo into an unholy trinity, but he hasn’t expressed a desire to direct… yet.)
So, getting back to the original question…
Come on, of course this is bad news for Star Trek fans, Spider-Man fans, and fans of sci-fi and comic book movies in general. It’s highly unlikely that a first-time director who compares Star Trek Into Darkness favorably to Raiders of the Lost Ark is capable of learning from his mistakes and making a better movie. And if a veteran director like Sam Raimi can’t do Venom justice, there’s not much hope for a guy who so far has only given us a low-budget Chris Pine drama.
But when these films get released and it inevitably turns out Kurtzman and Orci have ruined two different franchises, at least we’ll be able to sum up our feelings with three simple words: No they DIN’T!