Saturday, June 25, 2011

‘Super 8’ Under Further Review

As a film critic you don’t always get to discuss a film the way you might with the friend you go to see it with.  You have to consider that your readers may not have seen the movie yet. You have to let your readers know what it’s about, so they can decide whether they want to see it or not. But, you can’t give too much away. In some instances, this isn’t really much of a problem. When it comes to a movie that has been kept under wraps the way “Super 8” was by its makers, it’s imperative that you don’t give too much away. 

When you do, it’s called a spoiler. As a reader, I don’t like spoilers. I see the word ‘spoiler’ and I’ll stop reading right then. I don’t like putting it into my writing either. But, with a movie like “Super 8”, when you don’t want to reveal any of the plot, it becomes very difficult to discuss what really makes a movie work or not work for you.

Much of my original review dealt with the fact that “Super 8” is one great big homage to the early films of Steven Spielberg, whose movies fill my childhood summertime memories and are a great part responsible for my obsession with movies in general. Many critics wrote about the film’s similarities with the films of Spielberg. It was a good way to express how much we liked the movie without having to reveal any of the secrets the filmmakers kept during the film’s prerelease.

Needless to say, I’ve got more on my mind about this film than just my own personal love for Spielberg. The fact is this isn’t a Spielberg film, but a creation of another director all together. J.J. Abrams has created a great many popular projects that have defined him as just as important a filmmaker today as Spielberg was in my youth. A friend of mine read my review after seeing the movie himself and decided to open a discussion with me about it. This revisitation is the result.


The next sets of comments on the film are my friend’s. He brought up many problems that he had with the film that I had heard from other sources. It’s important to understand that I don’t feel his perception of the film is “wrong” in any way. His comments are as valid as my own, but they inspired me to dig a little deeper in understanding exactly why I liked the movie in the way that I did.

These were my problems...

- This man-eating alien is suddenly benevolent.
- In the end the creature basically uses the force and makes all the metal things attach to the water tower to create his ship so he can leave town. Why the hell didn't it do that from the get-go?
- There was no reason whatsoever that Joe should think that Alice would be alive after being taken by the creature so his quest from that point on was completely contrived for me. 
- And the fact that she was alive, hanging upside down as larder was a little convenient.
- They talk about how if you touch the alien you understand it and vice versa, but they missed a huge opportunity for Joe to be touched by it earlier. If it had it would've made his quest to find Alice more believable. 
- Kyle Chandler suddenly hugging Joe at the end and saying, "I gotcha" was not enough for me to believe that they've come to understand each other. Kyle never stepped up as a dad. Just as a cop.
- I didn't like Joe letting go of the locket at the end because it wasn't like he was hanging onto his mother for ten years and he finally needed to let go. In fact he was extremely well adjusted and it was just a comfort thing.
- Ron Eldard was a little ridiculous in his role as Alice's dad.

I usually don’t like getting into bullet point arguments about a movie, because it so often becomes about changing the other person’s opinion and that is pointless. If you don’t like something about a movie, you don’t like it. That’s subjective. You can’t change that. But, since you so orderly listed your complaints. I would like to address some of them.

First, I’d like to say something about what I think is the strength of J.J. Abrams as a sci-fi creator/writer. Although on many of his projects he’s just shaping them rather than actually writing the scripts, there are signatures to the Abrams style. One of them is a vagueness about what is actually happening. This is an element he uses to help draw his audiences in, and it allows him to stretch his television projects out over several seasons. But, I think he’s also quite conscious of this choice as a writer. Some may feel he’s being lazy by not defining certain elements in concrete terms, but I think the season finale of “Lost” is a good example of why assigning definitive definitions to his brand of sci-fi may not work as well as leaving things ambiguous. When it was finally revealed exactly what the island was, it was a let down to many people. This type of storytelling works better if it’s open to interpretation.

The musician Seal once stated that the reason he doesn’t include lyrics in his liner notes is so people can allow the songs to mean what they mean to them rather than forcing them into his own meaning. I think Abrams is a filmmaker who likes to remain slightly open to interpretation to his audiences. So, many of the details in “Super 8” are never concretely defined. He doesn’t explain many things, leaving them for the audience to figure out on their own. I like this approach.

As for your first point, I don’t believe the script ever claims that the alien is either a man-eater or benevolent. What it clearly states is that the only thing the alien wants is to go home. According to the science teacher’s documentation, the creature became more aggressive throughout its imprisonment by the Army because it wanted to go home. There is no evidence that the monster kills anyone but the military personnel, with whom it has an axe to grind. I don’t believe benevolence is ever suggested. This thing’s no E.T. He never even tries to phone home. He just wants out.

As far as I could tell, all the civilians it captures are hanging as larder in its lair, making it something beyond convenience that this was Alice’s fate. The alien is using these victims to serve a purpose, but I’ll get back to that. What I don’t understand about the alien’s “victims” is this, once Joe frees the sheriff and the other woman, they are afraid of a creature that doesn’t appear to have harmed them. The fact that they were freed by the boys and then snatched right up again by the creature seems like a cheap thrill.

You’re right that there’s no reason for Joe to believe that Alice is alive, except for the fact that he is the hero of the movie, and he can’t just give up on her. I didn’t have a problem with him believing she was alive so much as I did with everybody just going along with this conclusion without much question against it. There should be some resistance to his idea of going after her. I agree, allowing the alien touch Joe earlier would make this work better.

As for the creature’s ability to put his spacecraft back together again—well, that takes us back to the victims. It makes a psychic connection with every human it has physical contact with. That magical force it uses to pull all the metal to the water tower may have been fueled by that psychic energy it formed with its victims. That’s why it collects all the civilians as larder in its lair. It’s using them to strengthen its telekinetic powers. It couldn’t have formed the spaceship from the train because it didn’t have any victims to fuel its telekinesis. That’s why it had to escape from the military imprisonment first. The science teacher knew this from his psychic bond with it.

All the metal objects it draws to the water tower are not used for his spaceship. The spaceship is formed from the white cubes. It uses the water tower’s structure and the metal objects as a launching platform. It could’ve formed this earlier, but it needed to find all the cubes first. This is another reason it needs the civilian victims and needs to keep them alive. While the train did contain the cubes, the creature didn’t have all the resources it needed to form the spaceship or the launching platform at the train wreck. Plus, there could also be other unseen obstructions for his psychic powers built into his train containment cell and the cube containers that prevented him from manipulating them at that point.

Now, Kyle Chandler’s character—you’re not the first person I’ve heard complain about his failure as a father. I’ve heard his character compared to typical Spielbergian dads as a deadbeat. I disagree with this assessment. If he were a typical Spielberg dad, the mother would’ve been present and he would’ve been absent. Even Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters” is absent as a dad. Chandler is not. He wants to be, but that doesn’t make him a failure as a father figure. He’s in mourning. He tries to send the boy away to camp because seeing the kid reminds him of his wife. He’s trying to do right by the kid.

There’s no real ‘stepping up’ that’s necessary. Compared to Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters”, I’ll take Chandler any day. Yes, he tells Joe to stay away from his friends. That’s because he’s a cop investigating a very mysterious and dangerous situation that Joe’s friends keep winding up right in the middle of. He doesn’t forbid Joe from his friends until after he catches them filming right in front of Helec, whom he knows is withholding major secrets and wielding obscene power. I’d tell Joe he was done making movies at that point too, so he wouldn’t end up disappearing like so many of the town’s other civilians.

As for stepping up at the end, he does set out to save his kid. There’re certainly a lot of avenues he could take as a cop who escapes his own unlawful imprisonment by the military, but he goes after his kid with a guy he doesn’t really like all that much. I’d say he does step up as a father. Do they understand each other at the end? Of course not. I didn’t understand my dad, and I doubt he understood me, until I was well into adulthood.  

I agree with you about Ron Eldard and the locket. Eldard’s final reaction shot to the alien spacecraft rising into the night sky is goofy and highlights a cheese factor that has not been an element until that moment in the movie. The locket moment felt like something that the filmmakers thought was supposed to be there, but they didn’t really know why.

I don’t feel this is some sort of great classic sci-fi. If I did, I would’ve awarded the same four stars I did to “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” There’s not enough meat to this material for it to be considered as great as those movies. I like how it addresses the Red scare and how its nuclear threat fueled sci-fi stories like this one from the 50s to the 80s, but it only references that fact and doesn’t really have anything to say about it. Also, Abrams doesn’t have quiet the same knack for raising the audience’s emotions through his camera movements and lighting that Spielberg does, but he comes close.

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