Saturday, June 11, 2011

Super 8

"Super 8" is the kind of movie that so almost works its painful.  Somewhere inside this movie (actually roughly the first thirty minutes) is a really good film that I'd recommend without a thought.  Half of this movie is a classic "Stand By Me" story of children growing up in the American suburbs.  Someplace else is a monster movie.  These two concepts do not belong together in this movie.  I really don't know why J.J. Abrams thought to try to remake "E.T." by replacing the alien with a monster that eats people.  But then, I also don't know why Abrams constantly refused all movie to ever let you see the monster.  Its a decent kid's movie, a horrible awful monster movie.

Me and J.J. Abrams don't have a very close relationship.  For one, I've never met the man and I don't believe we've ever been in the same state at one time.  But also, the movies he makes are never things I ever like.  "Cloverfield" comes back again and again on this blog as easily the most infuriating SciFi movie that's been made in the last decade.  You barely ever see the monster, shakey-camera, all the best action sequences happen off-camera, the movie explains nothing, the characters are awful, etc.  Then there's "Lost", a terrible show that pretended to be deep by conjuring up armor of mysteries and clues, only for it all fall down and eventually prove to be completely hollow and pointless.  "Star Trek" was a straight-forward space opera movie, and I can ultimate respect that.  I didn't really love "Star Trek", but it was okay.  For some reason or another Abrams decides to bring back some of the worst features of "Cloverfield" here.

"Super 8", however, is a much much better movie than "Cloverfield" thanks entirely to its cast.  J.J. Abrams shines in directing the small emotional kid's story, with expert casting and a brilliant script.  Then he fails completely when it comes to the monster movie.  The love letter to late 70s/early 80s small town life is far more effective than the love letter to the SciFi films of the period.  Why did this need to be a monster movie at all?

At the start of the movie, we have our main cast of preteen children working together to make a zombie movie on a borrowed Super 8 camera.  Amongst the cast of kids we have:  the main kid being raised by his distant father, the fat kid, the nerdy Jewish kid, the hyper small kid, and the Girl (Dakota Fanning's little sister*).  Every kid's movie needs these characters, because they're all shades of some vague American nostalgia of the good ol' days.  (Personally I grew up in the city, so the only thing this movie is making me nostalgic for is the movie "The Sandlot".)  There are great small touches that really make this first sequence work.  The main kid is a bit nervous putting make-up on the Girl's face.  And then there's the contrast of the happy dinner time of the complete family across the street, and the cold dark house of the Main Kid's home, now that his mom has died.  I especially liked the random chatter that the kids make about every random thing, even when its massively inappropriate.  The truly brilliant stroke is having the Main Kid watch family videos of his late-mom at night - trust me, when you lose somebody, you do this.  Every single night.   By the way, I might accidentally use the term "totally mint" in the future.

Roughly by the time the zombie movie starts shooting, I realized that this movie is absolutely perfect the way it is, and that the aliens don't need to even show up at all.  "Super 8" could just be a movie about a summer vacation where the kids film an amateur zombie movie, get into fight over the Girl, have a first kiss or two, and make memories that will last a lifetime.  Yeah, I know that schmaltzy and cliche, but I don't think a movie like that has been made in decades.  The first half hour is great... then an army train crashes and an alien pops out running around killing people.

The train crash is a ridiculous spectacle too.  One pick-up truck parked on the rails makes this train completely fly off the rails.  An entire building is destroyed, stuff flies in the air, there are explosions.  And somehow the kids manage to sit right by and not all get killed, while the the most preposterous rail disaster in the history of cinema happens before their eyes.  This is a perfect metaphor for what happens to this movie after that.  Completely derailed.  Ruins all around.  Now I'm about to become the arch-nemesis of all you "Super 8" fans, and I'm sorry for that.  Once you finish reading this review, you're going to want to track me down and murder me.  I'm waiting for you.  Come and get it.

Its at this point that "Super 8" decides to create two new plotlines.  The first is a series of weak kills by an unseen monster running around eating people and curiously deciding to steal car engines.  The second is the story of Main Kid's dad, a police deputy, dealing with the obviously evil military who won't tell him anything and are just trying to cover their tracks.  Meanwhile the kids are still trying to make the zombie movie, but the damage has been done.  Its like if in "The Sandlot"'s third act had the Beast escape from the fence and attack the town.  When I was eight, I think I might have wished for that once, and now some evil Genie with a penchant for irony has granted my wish.  The entire framework of "Super 8" has now shifted.  I'm in monster movie mode now.  Blue Highwind here can only be emotionally open and willing to accept sappiness for so long.  Once you open the gates of a Creature Feature, I want to see some gore.

J.J. Abrams for no reason that can ever be understood, decides to creature a huge air of mystery around the entire alien thing, even when there is really no mystery of any kind.  From the get-go we know its the alien killing people, and we know what's going on.  You don't need to include mysterious Rubix Cubes and government conspiracies to add mystery, this story isn't doing anything that every other SciFi Channel movie ever made hasn't already done four times.  And why the Hell does J.J. hide the monster from the camera until the last two minutes?  First he completely covers it then he makes it so you can't get a good look at it like we're watching "Cloverfield" again.  All for no reason, because in the end the alien is just a four-armed bat thing that might be the Cloverfield Monster's distant cousin or something.  This monster design is so unoriginal I think it might have been a generic enemy in "Final Fantasy X".  I think he's trying to build suspense this way like "Jaws" did, though its not working here because I can see the cogs of his thinking so clearly its laughable.  Its the year 2011, show the damn monster.  Plus the way that Abrams covers the monster is so contrived  that it was pissing me off.  One shot you can't see the monster because a sign is in the way.  They might as well have censored the scene by sticking J.J. Abram's smug face on the camera lens.  Just show the monster!  Show the kills!  This is lame.  "Jaws" might have hid the shark until the very end, but we got some blood.  Not to mention that sharks are a much cooler enemy than this lame-o thing.  The fact that Abrams lacks the balls to kill any of the kids ruins what suspense their might be too.

Then Abrams stages a tank battle in town WHICH WE CAN'T SEE because the camera is focused on the kids.  Fuck you, J.J.

The ending of this movie holds what is perhaps the most hilarious scene I have ever witnessed.  So the alien builds a spaceship to go home (see he's not all that bad, he just wants to leave - and eat people).  He sucks up all the metal in town, but he needs one more part before he can leave.  This is just one minute after the Main Kid made a really lame speech to the monster about "we don't have to afraid".  The kid's locket, which he's carried all movie starts to shake, the alien wants to take it.  This is a locket which his mom's picture in it, not something most people would give up even at gunpoint.  But the kid lets it go, because the alien's ship needs one more ingredient:  the power of love.  Oh yes, the symbolism here is so goddamn opaque that I still have bruises from where J.J. Abrams beat me over the head with the film's main theme.  Oh, the Main Kid is giving up his sadness for his mom so that his dad can be his parent now.  Oh, the alien has learned to love... or something.  Its embarrassingly stupid.

"The Iron Giant" tried this exact same theme, and it worked a lot better there.  You know why?  Because the Iron Giant didn't eat people.  And the Iron Giant got screen time.  I'm not going to switch modes from "fear" to "understanding" because the monster heard one lame speech.  If the monster had been a part of the kid's group from the beginning, I could get that.  But he's a background feature that eventually devours the entire movie.  Its a waste.  "Super 8" has great characters - my favorite by far is the short kid who likes to blow stuff up - and they all get excellent screentime.  The coming of age plot is out the window, because this is a monster movie now.  A bad one.  Maybe if the kids banded together to kill the monster using Pyro Kid's fireworks to take the monster out, I'd like this better.  Kind of like "IT" but with an alien instead of a clown.  Instead this... aint working for me.  Oh, Abrams does an excellent job creating his characters and his emotional mood, but the monster parts are so dumb that the movie is so much less than it could have been.  If you can forgive that, "Super 8" is your movie.  I can't.

You know what the best part of "Super 8" really is?  The end credits.  The final form of the kids' zombie movie is a lot funnier and better plotted than this entire film.  Should have made that an hour and a half long.

* Elle Fanning, interestingly enough, was in "My Neighbor Totoro" with her big sister Dakota, where they played the big and small sisters, respectively.  Just some random film trivia.  Elle looks ready to beat her sister Dakota these days, because she has a spot-on perfect role in this, and poor Dakota is sticking plastic vampire teeth in her mouth and making a mockery of herself in the "Twilight" movies.

1 comment:

  1. never mash up two random plots together kids