Super 8, or The End of Cinema (Review)
Super 8, Movie/Film Review
Imagine you’re standing in the forest. Around you, the larger oaks and pine trees have vaulted up over the years to create a thatched canopy above, blotting out much of the sun for the ground-hugging plant life. Yet, as you walk along the shrubbery, you notice small trees that have somehow managed to colonize. Struggling in the shadows to mature, they are on the verge of thriving.
For years, the big studio films have been the oaks and pines which have exhibited dominance as the superior competitors of the film industry forest. Yet lately, among these giants, and so too off in uncultivated meadows and fields, a type of secondary succession has been occurring. The internet and advances in technology are the chief stochastic factor of the internet, random additions to the wilds of the Biz. The lower barrier for entry due to the accessibility of filmmaking technology, and the potential for exhibition facilitated by the internet are the pedogenesis – the soil creation – for an emerging, young forest.
Yet the giants remain. Like dinosaurs –leathery, brutal, predictable – pounding among these new, furry creatures which scuttle about at their feet. It is the end of cinema as we’ve known it for a century.
This missive here is not an invocation to watch theatrical movies less. This review, and essay, is an inquiry. The Australian author Clive Hamilton expresses this sentiment – “I’m not talking about constraining the economy because of global climate issues; I’m saying the economy will be constrained by global climate issues.” Here, too, we have something not for debate, but to wonder: where can movies go from here?
Let’s look at Super 8. While Gareth Edwards made his film Monsters for a mere and championable fifteen thousand dollars, Super 8’s production budget is considered to be nearly fifty million. First, let’s look at the formula for a blockbuster (it’s identical to the formula for a bestselling novel): Create sympathetic characters, which have relatable, though magnified, problems. Why magnified? Few people will sit through a film about a student nervous about passing their aviation test in school, but many more will line up to see the hero frantically learning to fly the plane before it crashes into the ground. Super 8 and Monsters function in essentially the same way. Likeable characters navigate a world inhabited by a monster, or monsters – creatures representative of our deep, personal fears. Through the story and special effects, we glean the reveal of the monster; we wait patiently for it to be shown to us, bit by bit. Along the way we are diverted (in order to protract the film to proper length), and ancillary things help the gleaning process. (In Monsters it is mysterious extraterrestrial fungi and intense warnings about journeying through the “infected zone.” In Super 8, it is the kids’ biology teacher – who also happens to be a top secret lab scientist – leaving behind film footage, audio recordings; an orgy of information for the kids to learn from, and for the audience’s sense of anticipation to ratchet up.)
Okay, so, what’s the difference? What Super 8 has that Monsters doesn’t have (at least as much of) are explosions and big action. Monsters has done its homework by opening the film with an intense scene of a military convoy encountering one of the monsters. Super 8 doesn’t do this up front – its hook is the extra dose of sympathy we are prescribed for the young boy hero – his mother has died. Later on in the film, though, after a series of snatch-and-grabs with fleeting glimpses of the monster in window reflections and out-of-focus shots, the military is in full swing, with tanks plowing through the quaint little town the story’s set in, and blowing everything up. (At one point my girlfriend whispered beside me, “What are they shooting at??”) There are indeed much bigger effects in Super 8, with cars crashing and tumbling, electromagnetic forces sending things flying poltergeist-style through the air. There is nothing wrong with having big effects, when judiciously applied; they are a necessary component of a story like this, which is the spectacle.
There is also nothing “wrong” with pastiche. The film’s writer-director J.J. Abrams pays homage to several films. The group of kids which compose our collective hero reminisce the gang from E.T. (This is no surprise – Super 8 is produced by none other than Steven Spielberg.) The giant monster and its relationship to the boy evokes The Iron Giant, as do the somewhat goofy military men driving around in jeeps and tanks and acting stereotypically useless and prejudicial. (The original War of the Worlds, too, comes strongly to mind.) The film doesn’t hide that it is pregnant with nostalgia – the entire sequence leading up to the first big moment, or plot point, is about the kids making a monster movie with their super 8 camera. Spielberg, of course, started out this way, making his first film (about WWII) on super 8, and likely Abrams comes from similar humble beginnings. So there is an unabashed wink at the days of yore, and this too is fine, and it is even part of the fun…
…Fun which lasts only for a short while. The problem with the film Super 8 is not technical, or artistic. The film is astute and colorful. The problem is systemic. Super 8 is the fruit of one of the giant trees which have enjoyed superiority in the forest. In order to justify itself, a film like Super 8, with a sizeable budget, and even more money sunk into its promotion, can’t take too many risks – if any. This dilution, or lowest-common-denominator approach, results in flat storytelling. The creators can’t risk alienating any potential audience member (or a crisis like Mars Needs Moms could happen all over again).
For instance, the boy and the girl are a Romeo and Juliet; both their fathers forbid them from seeing one another. Yet, this is perfunctory – both the kids spend time with each another without any great difficulty. The two feuding fathers even have a moment together which feels like a meeting at a men’s group: The girl’s father says, “I never meant to hurt anyone,” and the boy’s father concedes, “It was an accident,” and both are relieved. The girl gets taken by the monster, and becomes a damsel in distress. When the boy ventures into the monster’s lair to retrieve her, he distracts the monster with some firecrackers, rushes to the girl’s side, revives her with a little slap on the cheek, and all is well. When the boy confronts the monster itself, a creature which has been ravaging the neighborhood for quite some time, doing untold damage and turning everything inside out, he tells it, “Just go.” He adds, “Bad things happen.” (At this point, the monster’s eyes shed their insidious cataracts and become big, sweet E.T. eyes, and the monster seems to understand.) Within moments it suddenly builds its spacecraft and takes off for home, free at last.
Super 8 plays by the book. It gives the audience what it guesses most of them will want – cute kids, a big monster, a happy ending. In Hollywood parlance, “It’s a movie.” But are movies like this going to last much longer?
Let’s look at one last thing. Now imagine you are no longer in the forest, but standing in the lobby of your local movie theatre. Around you are the posters of the films currently showing. One is Green Lantern. Now, if you were like a lot of kids (like the very kids depicted in Super 8), you have a box of comic books somewhere in your attic. At the top of the pile is Superman. After that, Batman, Spiderman, X-men, and then maybe The Hulk, and The Punisher. At the bottom, and with fewer copies, you may have some Green Hornet, Avengers, and the Green Lantern.
If you take a look at the recent history of comic book movies, they’ve arrived in about the same order as they are stacked in this proverbial attic. So the studios are now pulling out and dusting off the dregs, trying to inspire the same hits and franchises from the once novel genre of comic book films. So, next to that poster in the lobby is Hangover II. We don’t need to say much about this film, because there’s not much to say, only that, yes, in this one there is a girl who possesses male parts. And next to that, the sequel-prequel which is the attempt to reinvigorate the X-Men franchise, plus the latest What-The-Hell-Is-Jim-Carrey-Doing-Now movie. Finally, you stand looking at the poster for Super 8 and you make your decision. It is the one “original” film, and you decide to give it a shot.
Guided to main-character sympathy by the opening sequence, and tickled by the nostalgic fun of the kids making their own little movie, you watch as the first big movie moment unfolds in a spectacular train wreck. Soon after, though, as the few threads of story unfurl and begin to telegraph their own ends, you find that you’re just waiting to see the monster, to get a look at What They Did This Time. After it’s all over, you leave the theatre with a shrug, thinking, not bad.
Not bad? Since when is it justifiable to spend millions of dollars on a film and its marketing campaign to be okay with “not bad?” Sure, it’s just a movie. There is no moral obligation to serve the public – or the annoying, over-analytical contingent of the public I represent – something that will inspire, wow, and leave them breathless for hours. The only obligation is a healthy return on the monetary investment. Despite the cynical, too-old-to-suspend-disbelief group I fall into, this film has done and will do fairly well. But, it is one of the last of its kind. This is the first big movie for months that was not a sequel, prequel, or animation extravaganza, and it heralds something imminent: the end of cinema as we know it. Due to the skyrocketing costs of making 35 mm prints, the meteoric rise of the online, on-demand alternative, these big oak films can no longer sustain their place in the forest (theatrical distribution) because the ground is changing. Like Clive Hamilton’s sentiment, here it’s not about calling people to stop watching films like these, these films are becoming increasingly unwatchable. Nor is it about asking the theatres to play something different; if theatres want to remain viable parts of the filmic ecosystem, they will have no choice but to begin catering to the alternatives, those films made for a fraction of the budget, and not afraid to look and sound different, to remind us that fresh fiction is still alive, and the law of the forest is mutable. Everything is in flux, and new life always emerges.
To its credit, Super 8 has a few story elements which do what films really ought to: present things from the collective unconscious of society. In this case, the fact that both the boy and girl have only their fathers in their lives is significant. The roles of parents has been gradually changing over the couple of decades, as more fathers have become stay-at-home dads, and more mothers less present on the scene. (The Oprah days of men-are-scum are falling behind us as the culture evolves.) The film also does something subtextually which deserves appreciation: it exonerates the alien. The progression of the alien-monster movie has always mirrored the development of our culture. Half a century ago, alien-invasion films spoke to our fear of foreign occupation by communist countries – the lookalike creatures with their esoteric ways would come in and take over the States. More recently we have seen our fear of A.I. surface in films as the aliens have taken on more techno-characteristics, spacecrafts with jagged, dark machinery, and beings with more attributes in common with robots than organic extraterrestrials. Super 8 presents a nice hybrid: a monster alien who uses technology beyond our grasp.
What’s important is the message buried in the easy-come ending and predictable structure of the film: we can let go of our fears, and they will cease to trouble us. The more time we spend running them down, firing wildly into the dark, destroying our neighborhoods and way of life only adds fuel to the fire. The heart of the child, which we all possess, understands the situation intuitively: If we release the fear, if we accept that “bad things happen,” but then let them go, we can begin to find some measure of peace.
–TJ Brearton is a Contributor to The Free George.
The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.
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