Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Super 8 or What's Behind My Back?

My wife screamed. I mean, she really screamed. I don't remember one time in over a dozen years when she's actually screamed during a movie. Generally speaking, she just likes to cut the circulation off in whichever of my limbs is closest to her during any suspenseful or scary parts. This time, she screamed. Loud. And ended up half in my lap. From a movie seat, so that was kind of impressive. She made me jump. I don't even remember what it was that caused the reaction, at this point, but she followed it up with 3 or 4 lesser screams throughout Super 8. And she squeezed my left arm off. Yes, it fell onto the floor, and I had to have it reattached. It was pretty gross, though. I mean, have you ever really looked at the... goo... on a movie theater floor? Let me just tell you right now, you don't want your arm laying around in it. Fortunately, because we went to a late showing several weeks post release, the theater wasn't very crowded, so there weren't many witnesses to take care of.

My first reaction to Super 8 was very positive. There's a good story there. An actual story about real people. So here's the warning: there will be spoilers. I want to actually talk about this movie and J. J. Abrams, and I don't want to try to do it while dodging around trying not to give anything away about the movie. Also, despite anything negative I may say about Super 8, let me just reiterate that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching the film. It's easily one of the best stories in a movie I've seen this year. Not the best, but, probably, top 5.

I have very ambivalent feelings about Mr. Abrams. The more removed I am from the experience of sitting in the theater watching Super 8, the more my ambivalence towards Abrams extends over to the movie. See, Abrams has this problem: he likes to hide things behind his back to generate suspense. You remember doing that when you were a kid, right? Or, at least, having it done to you? When you're a kid, it's kind of fun. Trying to "convince" someone to show you what he's hiding. It's fun because you know he really does want to show you, so, once you've played the game long enough, he'll give you a peek. Teenagers change this to the "I've got a secret" game, but it's really the same thing.

There are two problems with this: 1. the thing is often anti-climactic 2. sometimes, we already know. Oh, actually, there's one other problem: it only works once. It's sort of a cheap trick in story telling because of that, when the suspense is being generated by just holding the secret behind your back. There's no reason to go back and experience it again, because you already know the secret. As opposed to a movie like The Sixth Sense (and I hate using this, because I don't have much respect for what Shyamalan has become. However, you can't deny that this one film was brilliant. Possibly the most brilliant of its genre) where the secret is really in front of you the whole time, you just don't know it because you haven't figured it out. You can watch it over and over again marveling at how you should have figured it out but just didn't.

That was the biggest issue I had with Super 8; I had flashbacks of Cloverfield, which is a movie I just didn't enjoy. I appreciate what Abrams was trying to do (it was a great idea), but the execution was... well, it was just weak. A movie without a plot with the author holding a monster behind his back that he flashes to us for a brief moment at the end and leaves us saying, "That's it? That was all? Two hours of this just for that?" He applies this same gimmick to Super 8, and, although he gives us a better view of the critter at the end of the movie, I still felt like I'd been kind of cheated. It was sort of like finding out that all he'd had behind his back the whole time was a frog. There was nothing startling about the alien. It was an alien. Big deal.

Abrams' genius lies in his ideas. He comes up with great concepts. Like Cloverfield. He doesn't have the best execution, though. He lets the idea run away with him instead of harnessing the idea. His Star Trek is a great example of this. He has this problem. He needs to re-boot the Star Trek franchise, but he doesn't want to just do the same thing over again. How could he shake things up? Destroy Vulcan. Go off on a whole new timeline. It was a great idea. But red matter? Seriously? That's the best he could come up with? And some guy sitting around in a space ship for decades just waiting? Yeah, it sounds malevolent and all, but, come on, decades? There's bound to be a point where the boredom sets in. Don't get me wrong, I loved his Star Trek. It's the best Star Trek out there, but, in the end, it's still just Star Trek with things like red matter that make my eyes roll.

He seems to have a follow through issue, too. Like a cat in a field of butterflies. Alias comes to mind. Another great idea. The first season was exceptional. Hooked me and my wife. We watched the whole series based on that first season. Well, the second season was pretty good, too. Somewhere in the third season, though, he got a new idea, Lost, and left Alias to pursue that instead. And Alias was full of the "what am I hiding behind my back?" plots. Every season. Oh, and everyone was an enemy spy that they would just suddenly reveal "by the way, I have a secret." I haven't watched Lost, but it has sounded like it was much the same. Great concept. It must have been considering how many people flocked to it, but he left it somewhere in there to go do Fringe, which I couldn't watch. I tried. But it was just too Abrams. Oh, and there was Star Trek in there, too, so, really, all you people out there upset about how Lost ended, you can't exactly blame Abrams, because he wasn't there. Other people were responsible for whatever bad stuff happened at the end of the series. Oh, wait. Abrams wasn't there. I guess you can blame him. But, you know, he probably didn't have any idea about how to end it, either, so it probably wouldn't have mattered if he had been there.

Super 8 evokes all of these Abrams issues for me. I can see them all in there. However, 8 has one saving grace: the story is just E.T. With a twist. It's the "what if the government had found the alien first?" version. But it's still a story about a boy that has lost a parent and is trying to cope with his loss. By meeting an alien. If only that was an option available to all boys that have lost a parent. Spielberg gave Abrams an assist on the story, so it's not surprising that that's what we're getting. Just with a lot of explosions and guns and eating humans (because that's really the freakiest moment in the movie, the alien casually munching on a human limb like it's eating a chicken leg). It's a strong story, and I could probably watch Super 8 again for the story, although the suspense surrounding the alien won't be there. My wife said she'd watch it again just to see the train crash again. It is spectacular.

Abrams does an excellent job with the setting. It evokes that sense of nostalgia in people my age and older. Those memories of what it was like to be a kid at that time. It's probably the strongest thing about the movie. It's perfect. Kids riding bikes. Models hanging from ceilings. Star Wars posters and comic books. All those things that are gone from mainstream life today. No cell phones. No computers. Cameras that actually use film that has to be developed. In that respect, I'm not sure how the movie plays to younger audiences. I haven't seen anything from that demographic about it, and we didn't take our kids to see it. I'm pretty sure all the explosions would make up for any lack of connection with the world of the movie, though.

There's even a message. Most movies, these days, don't have messages. Or themes. Nothing beyond the good vs evil. Which is fine, but it can go deeper than that. Abrams doesn't want anyone to miss his message, so he states it plainly for the audience. I'm impressed by this. Not in that he did it, but that people have still missed it. I know they have. I've read more reviews about this movie than any movie in a long time, and they all missed it. I would have thought that stating it the way Abrams did was a bit heavy handed, but, evidently, you have to put it right out there for people to even have a hope of them getting it, and, still, people will miss it. It's like communication with teenagers. Maybe that's where he messed up; he didn't state the message at least three times. Having spent many years of my life working with teenagers, I have experience with the "at least three times" thing. Most of them will get it after three times, although some still miss out and have to come back and ask "what did you say?"

At any rate, it's a good message. So good, in fact, that I'm going to quote it. The whole movie, the whole story, leads up to this one line. From the very first frame, he begins setting up the story, with a true  plot arc, to lead up to the one line of the movie that will sum everything up. However, I don't think it will spoil anything to know it ahead of time, because this particular aspect of the movie is about the journey. The journey of a father and a son trying to figure out how to connect with each other after the loss of the wife and mother. It's a touching journey and more grounded in reality than E. T., since the relationship in E.T. is the relationship with the alien. Who, then, leaves. Like Eliot's father left. This time, though, the boy is left with his father and the knowledge, "Bad things happen. Bad things happen, but you can still live."


  1. I am a JJ Abrams fan so I will pretend like you didn't just trash him......Anyway I loved this movie. I saw it with my son and when I screamed he rolled his eyes at me. He loved this movie because he thought the kids were really cool....probably because they said bad words and lit fire crackers. You hit the message right on the head and I too think it is a very good message to teach. We can still be friends even though I love Abrams and you don't....LOST was the greatest show on tv....just sayin.

  2. I generally like Abrams, he it great at coming up with a premise, brilliant at generating a mood, usually suspenseful one, but does seem to peter out there at the end for the most part.

    I'm cool with that though, it isn't easy come up with a payoff worthy of so much suspense. I recall when I was a kid and that movie 'Explorers' came out. For and hour or so I thought it was the greatest movie ever made - then the last 30 minutes ruined the whole thing.

    That big payoff, it's tough, I can't really blame someone for not being able to do it all.

    He does, by the way, really need a science adviser to vet his scripts though, especially if he is going to continue to do sci fi.

  3. Brilliant review, Andrew. Honestly, I was skeptical of seeing this movie, save for the fact that Kyle Chandler stars in it, and we fell in love with him as Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights. However, after this, I'm actually excited. Abrams is a talented storyteller, no doubt about it. But, as you said, he's had hits and misses.

  4. Have you ever googled the backstory on Cloverfield? It's really interesting. The monster in Cloverfield a.k.a. "Clover" is this 2,000 year old baby that lived on the bottom of the ocean eating super nutrient rich stuff. A Japanese company went down underwater to harvest it for a great energy drink that becomes uber-popular. So basically, all this nutrient-rich stuff starts going away because of over-farming. "Clover" depends on it for its life, gets mad, and goes up to the surface (New York instead of Japan) and destroys everything to teach the mean people taking its food a lesson.

  5. Jennifer: I'll consider taking a look at Lost. :P I'm not thinking, though, that it's going to beat out Dr. Who or Sherlock.

    Rusty: A science advisor would be great. I still haven't gotten over the whole red matter thing, although I think that was probably more of a Star Trek thing than an Abrams thing.

    I'll have to look Explorers up. I vaguely remember the title, but I don't remember if I saw it.

    Alyssia: I haven't seen Friday Night Lights. Actually, all the actors were new to me. It's a good movie, so let me know what you think when you see it.

    His biggest miss, for me, was MI3. Such a miss I can't really remember anything about it other than a vague feeling of dislike.

    Michael: I knew there was a backstory, but I was so dissatisfied with the movie, that I didn't bother to look up anything else about it. I thought it was a great concept, but he really needed to provide more in the movie beyond people running away and getting killed.

  6. I agree that he often doesn't bring it in the end. I did watch Lost, though we watched it via DVD before the final season. I liked it at first--there were interesting mysteries--but the end was blah, disappointing. The thing is, he's sort of like a giddy child with a surprise, but that surprise is a rock, so he's the only one who cares.

  7. LOL on the rock thing. See, I was thinking along the lines of a frog, but, yeah, a can see a rock. When my oldest was around 5, he was constantly bringing in rocks he wanted to keep. But not cool rocks, just any piece of gravel he happened to find. He still would keep trash if we'd let him. heh

  8. The reason that I never saw this was because it was produced by Steven Spielberg. Between this, Indiana Jones, Falling Skies, Cowboys Vs. Aliens, etc etc etc, Steven Spielberg seems to only want to taint movies with horrible alien-related plots (case in point, Indiana Jones). I've heard, though, that this movie is worth giving a chance (much as in this review). So I'd give it a chance.

  9. To be fair to Spielberg, at least in regards to Crystal Skull, he didn't want to do aliens in that one. That was Lucas. However, he does seem to be stuck on them since then. Just focus on the fact that Super 8 is not really -about- the alien, and you should be okay.