In 2007, 2K Games released the first BioShock game. A twisty, terrifying first-person shooter set within a sprawling underwater city, BioShock was a blockbuster hit, beloved by gamers and critics alike. So passionate was the fervor surrounding the title that it only took a few months for Hollywood to come calling, and in 2008 it was announced that Universal had snapped up the rights to produce a film based on the game. They tapped Gore Verbinski to helm the project, hired Oscar nominee John Logan to write the script, and were only 8 weeks away from the start of production when the studio got cold feet and pulled the plug.
The reasons why were typical: the giant price tag (reported to be $160M, and possibly as high as $200M), the R-rating, the fact that a number of other similar movies had bombed around the same time. Quite simply, Gore Verbinski's BioShock didn't get made because Universal read the tea leaves and decided it wasn't worth the gamble, and that was that. In the years since, fans have often wondered what the film would've been like (and, indeed, if it could've possibly lived up the game that inspired it), but beyond a very basic description of Logan's script and a number of concept art images that continue to make the rounds, there's been very little to go on.
Which brings me to yesterday, when a copy of John Logan's BioShock script fell off the back of a truck in front of my house. I had been hunting a copy of this script for literal years; I've even been duped once or twice by scripts that turned out to be hilarious forgeries (in fact, just a few weeks ago, someone sent me a copy of "the BioShock script" which was literally just every beat and line of dialogue from the game written down in screenplay format). To say that I was excited to dive into this thing would be a massive understatement: I dropped what I was doing and read it immediately, burning through all 119 pages in record time. When I was finished, I sat back in my chair, crossed my arms over my chest, and stared into the middle distance for about 10 minutes. The infuriating truth? The BioShock script rules, and would've made for one helluva movie.
And now I'd like to tell you about it.
By and large, Logan's BioShock is very much the BioShock you know and love: after a brief introduction (which puts us firmly in the real world, circa 1960) there is a plane crash, a journey down to the ocean floor, the discovery of Rapture by our protagonist, Jack. The Lighthouse is there, Andrew Ryan's opening monologue ("Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?") is there, a Splicer attack on the bathysphere immediately upon arriving in Rapture is there. Everything's in its right place. We're also introduced, via two-way radio, to Atlas, Ryan's rival in Rapture and a potential ally to Jack, who is confused and alarmed by his new surroundings. And who wouldn't be? There are dead bodies everywhere, bits of old machinery (vending machines, a tennis ball launcher, and so on) humming along in dark hallways, disgusting sea slugs clogging up the toilets - it's Rapture as you remember it, only this time there's a lead character voicing his reactions to it.
As a character, Jack's a bit of a wash. Propelled along by a compulsive need to be free (he ends up on that fateful flight having fled the mandatory career his dad set up for him right out of college) and further pushed along by a need to survive his escape from Rapture, Jack spends most of the script piecing together who he is, why various characters in Rapture respond to him so strangely (was that a look of...recognition?), and how he fits into the larger puzzle that's been set out before him. There's not a tremendous amount of personality to Jack, but he's a fine stand-in for the role previously filled by you, the player, sitting on your couch. He'd probably be way too old for the role given Jack's college-grad age range, but I pictured a young Ed Norton while reading the script.
Anyway, it's not long before Jack encounters some Splicers, and as described by Logan these things are horrifying: they descend from ceilings "like spiders", they attack one another in absolute frenzies of violence, they have all quite clearly gone mad - a fact that's reinforced whenever you get to hear the Splicers conversing with one another, which is more often than you'd expect (one scene finds Jack watching through a hole in the wall as a Bride and Groom Splicer get into a marital row that results in the Bride killing the Groom before cradling his head in her lap and feeding him bits of wedding cake). I have no idea what Verbinski's Splicers would've looked like, but as presented here I imagine they'd have been utterly terrifying. All of this stuff is spot-on, either directly lifted from the game or very much of a piece with the world that 2K built.
Eventually, Jack meets up with Atlas, face to face. Atlas gets Jack up to speed on the goings-on in Rapture, and soon enough they encounter the mad artist, Sander Cohen (as in the game, Sander's working on his masterpiece, and it's just as grisly as you'd expect). That leads to a protracted battle with a number of very angry Splicers, which in turn leads to Jack injecting himself with ADAM for the first time. At this point, Jack doesn't know where ADAM comes from or how it works, but upon shooting it into his bloodstream it he finds himself overcome with power, confidence, and bloodlust. He slaughters an entire roomful of Splicers without breaking a sweat, and comes away from the experience instantly addicted to that glowing, blue drug.
It's here that I'll pause and note the following: Logan's BioShock script unfolds across a dizzying number of locations within Rapture. Jack rarely, if ever, stops moving, and his journey through Ryan's underwater city puts him in a number of locations you'd remember from the game. This is all well and good from a fan point of view (You wanna see Neptune's Bounty, right?), but it's also painfully obvious that this script would've been insanely expensive to shoot. Rapture is a dying, Art Deco city sitting at the bottom of the ocean, filled with towering skyscrapers (seascrapers?), glass tunnels, elaborate hub areas, and various other locales (Sander's gallery, a medical pavilion, numerous secret passages, an entire 1950's neighborhood built to scale in an enormous, warehouse-like space, complete with astroturfed lawns and floodlights on the ceiling to simulate daylight). Of course a great deal of this could have been accomplished with green screen, but given that we know Universal was building sets over two months prior to Verbinski shooting a frame of film, it seems safe to assume they were going to attempt a lot of this stuff practically. Pretty fascinating!
Soon enough, Atlas and Jack are forcibly split up from one another, at which time Jack continues to make his way towards Neptune's Bounty and Andrew Ryan's office, which looms in the distance - visible via portholes and various glass tunnels - throughout the journey. He encounters Little Sisters, a helpful bellhop-type by the name of Rudy (who may not be as helpful as he seems), and, eventually, a Big Daddy. As with the Splicers, Logan's script paints the Big Daddies as fearsome abominations, nearly indestructible and constantly on the lookout for any nogoodniks who might be mistreating their Little Sisters. Jack runs afoul of one such Big Daddy while in the aforementioned faux-50's neighborhood, and only just barely survives the brouhaha that ensues. It's a harrowing encounter.
Speaking of which: the debate surrounding this film's R-rating seems absurd once you've read the script. The violence is quick and savage, often cruel. Splicers attack one another and Jack, but there's also an utterly brutal slaying of a Little Sister that genuinely shocked me, a moment where Jack gets his ear ripped off (!!!) and all manner of other unpleasant acts visited upon various forms of flesh. Everything in Rapture is decaying and gross, and some new eye-poppingly awful thing seems to be waiting around every corner. So, tonally, it feels like a hard R. Textually, it reads like a hard R. If you wanted a PG-13 BioShock movie, it seems like you'd have to do a massive rewrite on what Logan's done here...which would be a real shame, given that what's here is so good.
Anyhoo, Jack's travels eventually bring him to the offices of one Andrew Ryan, and, well, I'll just say that Logan's BioShock screenplay delivers on the same narrative twists presented in 2K's BioShock game. Everything plays out pretty much as it did there, up to and including various "Would you kindly?" references sprinkled liberally throughout the dialogue and set design/script notes (one aside has the phrase appearing in a pile of Scrabble tiles). If you enjoyed the legendary twist of 2K's BioShock, you'll be pleased to know that all of that's been maintained here, and fleshed out just a smidge to make Jack a more well-rounded character. It doesn't completely work - as I said before, Jack's character still comes across as a bit slight - but for the most part, it all works just as well as it did the first time.
Once Andrew Ryan's been dealt with, the script plays out much as I remember BioShock playing out, and it builds towards an epic showdown between Jack and the guy who's been pulling the strings all along. That's not surprising. What is surprising is how the entire narrative wraps: 2K's BioShock offered a few different endings, and which one you saw was largely determined by the choices you made throughout the game. Logan opted for the darker ending in his telling of the tale (it's been a while since I revisited the game, but I think Logan might have actually made this ending even darker). This is notable for its ballsiness, but it's also notable because...I mean...honestly, I'm shocked this project, with that ending, got as far along as it did before Universal pulled the plug. It's a bleak, ugly finale, and I can't help but wonder if general audiences would've been onboard for it.
That, of course, is the Big Question. Who would this movie, this particular BioShock movie, be for? Fans of the series, for starters. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more faithful video game adaptation, a fact which was surely helped along by the fact that the first BioShock game is masterfully written and plotted. It probably would've pleased horror fans, as well - Verbinski's BioShock would've had the director going darker than he had since The Ring, and the visuals likely would've been repulsively spectacular (I really, really, really want to see what one of Verbinski's Splicers would've looked like). It also probably would've played well with hardcore sci-fi nerds.
But would this $160M take on BioShock have played well with general audiences? I'm not so sure. The subject matter's so dark, the ending's so bleak, and the stench of other video game adaptations - which only grows stronger with each passing year, particularly for video game adaptations that traffic in the dark and gritty - might have kept large swaths of potential moviegoers away. I sure as hell wish this movie existed, but - all things considered! - I can kinda see where Universal was coming from on this one. Rumors persist that the property's being excavated by the studio even as we speak, maybe even put back into development, but as of this writing there's nothing to confirm that as the case. A BioShock movie may well happen one day (look for studio interest to swell in the wake of the release of the next BioShock, which is being worked on now), but if it does, it's still probably some years away, and almost definitely won't be working from this particular draft of the script.
So, what have we learned? Mainly this: video game adaptations are hard to pull off, but with the right writer and a solid foundation, they're not entirely impossible to nail - at least in script form. If Verbinski had been allowed to shoot this version of BioShock back in 2010, there's a better-than-decent chance it would've been great, possibly even an all-timer within the genre (not a high hurdle, I know, but still). But if they nailed it once, someone could nail it again. Here's hoping someone gets that shot, and that someone with as strong an eye for the spectacular and strange as Gore Verbinski is given the go ahead to take a crack at it.