Sunday, June 12, 2011

Super 8 Review

Since I saw the first Super 8 trailer a year ago, I've been excited for it. Abrams coming off a home run in Star Trek and to be teaming with a legend like Spielberg sounded like a sure win. A Bad Robot/Amblin team-up with designs on replicating the latter's magic from decades past such as we've seen in Jaws, Close Encounters, and E.T.. I couldn't ask for anything more to my liking. The trouble is, in reality, Super 8 is a failure and a cheap imitation that has more in common with modern day films than those of hallowed cinema history.

So I've been waiting over a year to see what's actually going to pop out of that crashed train's cargo and I'm still left waiting as the film progresses. You're almost on the hook for the entire film waiting for the big reveal and when it finally comes, it's a huge disappointment. People will argue that this isn't what the film is about and that the children featured in the story are rightfully the focus of the movie, but the gang of filmmaking misfits isn't interesting enough to hold my attention for two hours. The lure of the monster is what has me. Without saying too much specifically about it - the creature turns out to be something of a mess. It's CGI limbs and teeth and nothing that looks remotely realistic or frightening. Even its origins and nature are uninspired and underdeveloped.

My question is why make the damn thing such mystery? The film is more Jaws or ET than Close Encounters, so what's the point? Yes, the shark in the former is offscreen for a great deal of the film, but the audience knows it's a shark. To me, there's just something arrogant about withholding your respective film monster. It's like "oh, wait 'til they get a load of what we cooked up!". They did the same thing with Cloverfield, which I'd argue is a superior film simply because it delivers something that is interesting. A better film would simply feature the monster and allow it proper exposure throughout, without all this grandiose revealing.

Another issue with the monster is that it can't just be a monster. It's not the true villain, it's actually a victim of the true villain - the military. All the while it destroys and devours people, but that's just a symptom of the abuse inflicted upon it by the cruel and one-dimensional military men. When portraying antagonists in the form of the government or military officials, I feel it's better to go to one extreme or the other as far as character development. Either you give these villains the a lot of attention or zero at all. They're either fully developed bad guys or faceless malevolent operatives. All Super 8 gives us a bunch of mustache-twirling.

I think this comes down to the root of the film's problem, which is a fundamental inability to make choices. It focuses on too many relationships and too many people without properly developing a single one, with the exception of perhaps the main children Joe and Alice. Joe and his distant father, Joe's father and Alice's father, the monster and the doctor, Joe and his pudgy friend Charles, Joe and his dead mother, the group of friends amongst each other - these are all relationships that try to get shoehorned into the film and none work very well. There's a scene when Joe and Charles meet up to watch their footage of the train wreck and it's discovered that they're both interested in Alice, which was pointless to begin with, but made even more annoying by the fact that it plays off what a strong bestfriendship the two have, which has not even been remotely hinted at up until that point. And in all this confused examination of the bonds between two characters, singular ones fall by the wayside.

Having the film set in the time period of Spielberg's greatest successes is a fun diversion from the film's mediocrity. Some of the shots and use of color are great throwbacks and the cars and the clothes too. However, there are moments when it starts to become a bit too overstated. I understand that this is a different time period, the kids don't need to be screaming the lyrics of "My Sharona" in unison to hammer that point home. Again, I'll mention a Matt Reeves film - Let Me In. I didn't love the film, but felt there was some very cool uses of nostalgia in it. The kids cruising around to Blue Oyster Cult don't need to talk about how they're listening to BOC because it's just a part of the background.

And speaking of the film's kids, I thought most of them were pretty good little actors, which I don't say often. However, their whole story seemed a bit contrived and boring to me. I don't really care about the movie they're trying to make, but it's given a lot of attention throughout the film. They're making a zombie movie whilst name dropping Romero repeatedly - hasn't this been done before? It also seems to me that the subject of their film is what it is because zombies are currently very in vogue.

I really wanted to like the film's conclusion, which features a touch of cool imagery and a nice cut to credits, but it fell very flat and left me completely unsatisfied. In the end, we see Joe letting go of his mom's death (which frames the entire film) and him and his father coming together. My problem with this is that it feels very forced. I don't see how that issue is relevant to the creature's departure from the film. There's this effort to connect the two - the town's experience with the monster and Joe's familial drama - but they're utterly unrelated. I mean, Eliot has an absent father in ET, but that's not mirrored in his relationship with the alien. Some things can just remain background, providing realism and development to the characters and setting. Super 8 suffers from an unnecessary infusion of cheap emotionalism.

I was hoping this film would recapture some of Amblin's glory from an era gone by. And I, being a huge supporter of period films, thought that setting the film within that era would be a major plus, but perhaps I was thinking about it all wrong. The 70's/80's Amblin films weren't great themselves for imitating an era gone by. They existed within their own era, so something hoping to match them would have to exemplify it's own times in an equally positive way. The most you can hope for by imitating is an imitation, where I was hoping for the genuine article. Turns out you just can't go back to that time. Super 8 is an unimpressive, heartless, an unoriginal action film consistent with what is currently being pumped out of Hollywood. Setting it in a different era doesn't change that. It won't be considered among the classics it's aspiring to be, except for as a cheap imitation.


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