I’m pleasantly surprised to read on DEADLINE that James Cameron is planning on directing Taylor Stevens’ amazing book THE INFORMATIONIST after AVATAR 2.
A few years ago, before the book was published, I wrote an analysis (with a bit of plot info thrown in) as to why this book was bound to become a film franchise. Here are my (edited) thoughts.
THE INFORMATIONIST features a spectacular female hero in an adventure that is reminiscent of BLOOD DIAMOND, minus any political commentary. The role of Vanessa “Michael” Munroe provides an actress such as Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron, or Angelina Jolie with a character of intense physicality, genius intelligence, and most importantly, a cultural sensitivity that allows her to display unique detective skills in foreign lands. Vanessa knows 22 languages and through quick observation has the ability to take on whatever identity, class, nationality, or gender the situation calls for.
As an “Informationist”, Vanessa is a corporate information collector. She is hired to travel to developing nations and use whatever means are necessary to discover cultural specifics as well as how the governments actually operate—she identifies who really pulls the levers of power so her clients can determine if they’re interested in pursuing future investments.
When Texan oil magnate RICHARD BURBANK offers Vanessa $100,000 for an initial meeting, she learns his daughter EMILY went missing four years earlier during a backpacking trip across Africa and the expensive investigation that followed failed to solve the case. As she sees huge gaps in the reports on Emily’s disappearance, Vanessa takes the case and is paid $2.5 million for the next year’s worth of work—and will be paid an additional 2.5 mil if she finds Emily alive or dead. The only catch is that Vanessa prefers to work alone and Burbank requires his own mercenary MILES BRADFORD to accompany her in Africa.
The investigation takes Vanessa back to the Cameroon/Equatorial Guinea area for the first time since she escaped the region as a teenager. In pieces, we learn how Vanessa gained her expertise–she was born in Cameroon to American missionaries, left home as a rambunctious 14 year-old, and joined a mercenary group run by her mentor FRANCISCO. The leader of the group, PIETER WILLEM, was a jungle warfare expert who trained Vanessa to be a ruthless killing machine and repeatedly raped her at knifepoint as well. Vanessa was too scared to tell Francisco, as she assumed he’d confront Pieter and be killed. Instead, she seizes the opportunity to slit Pieter’s throat, steals his boat, and leaves Africa disguised as a boy named Michael. She never told Francisco she was leaving or has contacted him since. After a break in the case, Vanessa teams back up with Francisco, their relationship turns sexual, and he helps her find Emily with Bradford tagging along for the final mission.
Vanessa has a clear character arc. She starts off as a loner who coldly calculates every interaction to get what she needs in terms of either information or survival. Along the way, this changes as the reunion with her former mentor Francisco turns romantic. He always had feelings for her, but now as they are both adults, it becomes permissible. The complication here is that Francisco felt burned when Vanessa escaped (not knowing she was being raped) and never sent word that she was safe—he spent months tracking her before realizing she’d left the continent under the identity of a boy named “Michael”.
Now, Francisco knows that Vanessa’s romantic advances may all be part of her calculation that she needs his help on the mission. While this is logical for him to assume, it’s clear from events that Vanessa actually does have reciprocal feelings: When they’re stopped at a military checkpoint, she experiences fear for the first time. It’s because she worried about Francisco’s safety and not just concerned with her own survival and actions. It’s a huge leap and when Francisco dies after the mission, it’s clear Vanessa has opened up to the idea of love.
In addition to a strong backstory, the cool thing about this project is that Vanessa has a unique detective skill, which is the key to any franchise. Here, she observes the culture and blends into it. As she was born to American parents in Cameroon and has now spent half of her life traveling the globe, she doesn’t view herself as native to any specific culture, allowing her to seamlessly shift into any role. The introductory sequence finds her sneaking into an invitation-only event in a man’s disguise, then stripping the suit off to reveal a skintight body dress and expertly manipulating her target into taking her home where she drugs him and lifts a medallion with hidden data.
Later, we’ll watch her charm tribal elders and recognize that when a foreign minister shows up to the office for a meeting without his chauffer (on a day he could play hooky) that his claims of ignorance regarding the case are lies. Later, the minister hands over a death certificate that Bradford takes as authentic, but Vanessa’s understanding of how government culture in Africa operates allows her to spot the fake. (Check out how she handles the minister’s veiled threat to leave the country on page 139-140 and flatters a village elder on pages 163-164).
The author’s research here is admirable. When Vanessa and Bradford take a short flight, she points out they’re on an ancient Russian plane that receives little maintenance—planes in Cameroon are retired when they fall into the ocean or crash. There are also little touches of note, such as how Vanessa refuses air conditioning upon arrival in Africa to hasten her body’s acclimation to the climate (and keep her energy level up). Or how she comes prepared to seal up the hotel windows by taping the curtains to the wall in order to prevent mosquitos from entering.
THE INFORMATIONIST resembles BLOOD DIAMOND’s adventure that follows a white native on a complicated mission through third world African culture, but the hero is far closer to Angelina Jolie’s character in SALT. Vanessa is an intelligent expert with lethal fighting skills who is constantly backed into impossible situations that she always manages to escape and gain the upper hand. The mission itself is far more pedestrian that what was presented in BLOOD DIAMOND or SALT, but that’s okay because the hero is memorable and the conclusion leaves her immediately available for future adventures.
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