Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Stupor 8

An old adage tells that imitation is the highest form of flattery, although upon further reflection it doesn’t always constitute the highest form of art.  Never does this postulate demonstrate itself more clearly than in J.J. Abram’s 2011 monster movie Super 8, a loving ode to Spielbergian thrillers that imparts a contagious nostalgia for the golden age of filmmaking but has no life of its own.  There’s nothing super about this mess other than the way its proves that men like Steven Spielberg occupy a unique class of talented, visionary individuals, a creative sect to which some people are predestined by nature and to which some men can only aspire.  Abrams deserves credit for reinvigorating the formerly lackluster (as far the movies go) Star Trek franchise and developing such sci-fi hits as Lost, but when it comes to crafting a emotionally taut and suspensful thriller, he can only emulate, never equal, Spielberg.

Super 8 concerns a circle of middle-school-age boys in the 80s who put meticulous thought and labor into producing an amateur zombie flick they hope to enter into a film festival.  Joe has recently lost his mother to a factory accident and for the most part his father to his duties as the town’s Deputy Sheriff.  To ease his loneliness, he pursues the hand of Alice, a new recruit to director Charles’ project and daughter of the town druggie who would have died in the place of Joe’s mom had his intoxication not prompted her substitution.  By an unfortunate turn of events, this friendship provokes the ire and disapproval of both fathers, who irrationally take their extreme hatred or remorseful indebtedness for each other as a legitimate warrant to disband the affectionate relationship their children share.  Ultimately, the whole “disconnected, mean parents” conflict becomes so exaggerated, gratuitous, and illogical that it appears to serve no real purpose besides justifying the disobedience and backtalking by their kids, a disagreeable and childish theme that’s been a Hollywood cliché for decades at this point.  Regardless of one’s beliefs on respecting one’s father and mother, courtship, and all tese tings, the romantic arc between Joe and Alice is unfortunately not the crux of the movie and really just poses a sideshow in the big picture, which is more focused on alien invasions, government conspiracies, and mysterious, inexplicable phenomena that occur in the city after a catastrophic train wreck, none of which will make much sense to anyone except Abrams and Spielberg, whose financial and creative support in producing this fiasco apparently flew in one window and out the other, leaving moments of brightness in an overall dark and incomprehensible story, an image that evokes the stirring allegory of the sparrow in Saint Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, from which this incredibly lengthy and daunting sentence could easily have been pulled.

It causes me great pain that I must so viciously condemn Super 8, because its core has all the elements of a great, Spielbergian drama: wondrous, alien creatures, flawed but potentially sympathetic characters, a good deal of suspense, and first love on top of it all.  It’s a deep tragedy that all these components get wasted in what turns out be a Spielberg wannabe instead of a film that’s worthy in itself.  The most glaring misstep in Super 8 lies in its characterization: none of this movie’s main characters, least of all the kids, are remotely likeable with the possible exception of its two young lovers, whom Abrams never develops sufficiently enough to really make the audience care for their plight.  As for the other child actors, their voices have hardly changed and yet they sling profanities at a near breathtaking rate, often cursing each other in their frustration at the movie’s slow progress.  As a consequence, I could hardly muster the slightest concern for this bunch of a-holes and $#*!heads, to use their own terminology, even as they were being hunted by ill-intentioned, military swine and a really pissed off E.T.  Thus the movie violates the first principle of effective thriller material in disavowing any characters the audience can relate to, a cinematic crime Spielberg and his writers were wise to avoid.  A true Spielbergian work features characters who are imperfect but redeemable, people whom the audience can root for and tremble with as they endure trials and tribulations; it’s clear from Super 8 that Abrams never understood or never bothered to heed this rule of thumb, as his screenplay serves up a horde of smartallecky, arrogant, rebellious, foul-mouthed ‘yutes’ with incompetent parents and simultaneously expects viewers to cheer these jerks along through their hardship.  To call this a losing formula for a horror film is an understatement.

However, thanks to its clumsy writing and editing, Super 8 doesn’t fall neatly under a single genre, as the whole thing feels like a haphazard, non-cohesive mesh of several different films that never pay off individually.  We have a horrific creature feature centered on an indistinct, constantly shrouded alien with ambiguous, unexplained powers, a possibly entertaining but unfortunately shallow movie about making movies, a melodramatic, Hallmark tearjerker about healing families, and a weakly written, forced love story that’s been executed better in Flipped, How To Train Your Dragon, A Walk To Remember, or even We Bought a Zoo, which also starred the irresistibly cute and gifted Elle Fanning without the corrupting presence of aliens, drugged-up dads, or the Air Force.  In trying to branch out and encompass multiple narrative trains, Super 8 inevitably crashes and fails to make any of these stories very satisfying.

Looking at the film from a visual angle, it’s obvious that Abrams was trying to mimic Spielberg’s signature cinematography by teasing the viewer with brief, limited shots of the creature throughout the movie, but he departs from Spielberg’s technique in that he neglects to eventually expose the monster in its full, terrifying glory.  Super 8’s own E.T. appears to be a hybrid of giant tarantulas and King Kong, but to describe it accurately is a difficult task, considering how it emerges only at night, when special effects are the cheapest and when dim lighting allows it to effectively hide from the view of any spectators.  Most of the camera work is just downright corny and almost parody-like; take, for instance, the scene where the cashier gets dragged along the ground by some unseen entity, or the part when the construction worker in the crane gets devoured off screen as the impenetrable tree tops thrash violently in front of him, conveniently obscuring his gory demise.  Super 8 takes too many cards from Jurassic Park and not enough from Jaws, indulging in PG, kid-friendly action and cheesy, off-camera deaths while spurning the older members of its audience, who craved more monster in this alleged monster movie.

If the film has one saving grace, it would lie in the better-than-average performances from its young cast, but good actors can not and should not exist in a vacuum.  Regardless of whether it’s a thriller, a horror film, a ‘coming-of-age’ drama, or a science-fiction action adventure, a successful movie consists of a compelling story, intriguing characters, capable direction, and strong technical composition, none of which Super 8 has in abundance.  E.T., go home already.  You’re gonna need a bigger movie.

Final rating: To quote the venerable Dr. Malcolm, renowned mathematician and expert in chaos theory, “This is one big pile of $#*!”

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