Super 8, not the Hotel, the Third Encounter with Cloverfield’s Jaws movie

Have you ever gone to the theatre to see a film, and halfway through it you think ‘Wow, this is really good–I may come to see it again to catch all the bits and pieces of dialog I’ve missed’ and then slowly the film dips–sags–topples and you’re left looking up at the moon, grass stains on the seat of your pants thinking ‘What happened?’  Was it the pacing?  Somewhere along the way I felt like I was on a fifth errand for my mother only instead of the dry cleaners, it’s following kids around as they break into the school, get caught, get freed, chase the monster, run into their parents.  Was it the end? [small spoiler] No, that was okay–where the spaceship hovers above the center of a small town with military personnel and the main characters experiencing emotional balance–wait, wasn’t that Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Did they change reels when I blinked? [/end small spoiler]

This is what Abrams does with his films.  He starts them strong–running full speed up the hill of all my expectations and then BAM! Logic happens like a spiderweb made of nylon, catching him at the arms and sending him face first into the dirt.  He squirms around, frees himself, but can’t remember where he strayed so he ends with someone else’s movie.

Point of issue: Star Trek film.  It felt perfect until they paused to catch their breath and exposition (ah, it must be time travel! F#$%, we need to get Kirk onto the planet where old Spock is–Kirk, quick! Mutiny for me!), sped back up and ended when the Federation rescinds its earlier decision to kick Kirk out of Star Fleet and instead make him Captain of the Enterprise out of gratitude for saving earth from the alien whale probe.  Sorry, Romulans.

Super 8 is still worth seeing–possibly still even worth seeing in theatres–because of the group of kids shooting a zombie film (you get to see the film at the end when the credits roll).  They are truly delightful: energetic and individualized.  Elle Fanning gives a small, emotional performance in the movie within the movie that stops all the boys cold.

Beyond that, there is economy of story telling.  The film opens with a man in a factory changing the sign “[x] days since last accident”.  Cut to a wake where the adults and kids inside talk about the boy on a swing set.  Cut to a man who arrives to the wake, only to be dragged away in handcuffs.  It gets a little heavy handed in places e.g. any scene where an adult is talking (you stay away from my daughter!) as opposed to not talking (when the main character, the boy whose mother has died, comes home and sees his father sitting on the edge of the bathtub–no sound of crying, only an embarrassment at being caught and a quick shut of the door).

If you liked Jaws, you should like this film.  Because it is Jaws.  But with aliens.  Not in the same way that Eragon is Star Wars with a dragon, but in the same way that Star Trek, the reboot, is Star Trek Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock, and Voyage Home.  Since I like all those movies, I’m as happy as a standard application of Dalton’s Law.

As for this film, the problems I had stemmed from the fact that you have an Alien Antagonist, Military Antagonists, 2 Dad antagonists, and a group of 6 kids–who split up often.  No doubt in the future, some film exec will have the seemingly brilliant, but terribly executed idea of having interactive screens where the film is actually shot from the dozen or so point of views–and you can pick which one to follow like a producer in the booth of a TV show shouting for camera 6–5 zoom in–3!

But okay–large cast and lots of running from Point A to Point B is forgivable.  Then there’s the alien.  And his decision to [please stop reading if you have not seen the film and jump to the end]

[spoilers ahead]

[spoiler spoiler]

[you have been warned–with many spaces]

eat humans.  But also let some of them go.  And also to kill some of them (not by eating, another way).  Dear alien, unless you are the true main character and POV for the movie: you may pick one action that is appropriate for every human you encounter.  You are allotted one motivation which may change slightly if warranted, and you are allowed an occasional exception to your rules depending on circumstances and if a puppy or small child is threatened. Lets review:

In the beginning of the film, people disappeared because Hey! It’s a monster!

Later in the film we learn that the alien is hyper intelligent, and occasionally grabs people to communicate with them psychically (of course).  When we finally find the alien hide out, he has the humans he’s collected over the course of the film hanging upside down.  He then proceeds to eat one of them (so they’re sustenance now?).  Maybe he’s just so mad at the military guys, and so confused about grocery stores and cows, that he figures it’s okay.  Except when the main character rescues Dakota Fanning’s little sister (who really should’ve been on the look out for aliens from day 1–her family clearly has bad luck with running into them) she does *not* immediately freak out and run in any opposite direction available to her.  On the one hand, this is refreshing–that a girl, once jostled from her unconscious state, doesn’t turn into a simpering mess.  But on the other hand, what the eff?

He just wants to go home, says she.   He just wants to eat you, says we.

And then the alien finds them–and he chases them.  Because clearly, chasing a couple of kids out of your secret hideout is more important than fixing your space ship and going home.

Oh right, if the alien *hadn’t* chased them, arbitrarily picking up and throwing the other two adults, temporarily rescued, then we wouldn’t get the emotional resolution: bad things happen.  I know, my mom died.  And you were held against your will in a secret government compound and mercilessly tortured despite the fact that you were A) in possession of really super cool, possibly helpful technology B) perfectly capable of communicating.

It’s totally the same.

I actually have no problem with the alien kidnapping humans when he encounters them (out of fear that they will call the military–who is on the hunt).  And if instead of the Sheriff and a woman in curlers there had been an honest to god military guy with the kids, *then* maybe the chase scene would have been logical.  As it is, the alien’s only motivation for being anywhere, or doing anything has been ‘Uhh… we need to let people know there’s a monster in town–even though no one will say it’s a monster and instead will complain to the deputy about a bunch of missing microwaves’.  And ‘So a bus is driving along the road and it has the kids locked up in it, and the bad marine–could you maybe flip the bus and kill some people all while letting the kids escape? You’d be doing us a solid.’  ‘OH! And steal some humans so that the kids can recreate the Tom Cruise baiting an alien scene; I need to amp up my Spielberg homages.’

[End spoilers]

Final Thoughts:

A while ago I read an article about James Frey’s fiction factory sweatshop workshop.  In it, James Frey said that after looking at the Vampire, Werewolf phenomenon, that obviously Aliens were going to be the next, big, thing.  Which is why the world was introduced to the YA series and film: I am Number 4. Looking at Super 8, the upcoming Cowboys & Aliens, and this fall’s TV series Falling Skies–it looks like Frey was right.

Oh wait, except he created the situation.  A friend of mine once told me that if you’re in a group of 5 or more people, and there’s silence for more than a minute, someone is thinking of Abraham Lincoln.  For the rest of the workshop we attended, every time there was a minute or silence, Oliver would pipe up with ‘Abraham Lincoln’.  Someone pointed out that maybe he was just a little obsessed with our stove-top hatted president.  Or, more likely, it was an information virus.  You tell someone, they tell someone, and sooner or later–everyone is thinking about Abraham Lincoln (I picture him as a vampire hunter–how about you?).

So James Frey goes to Hollywood–he’s got a big enough name and enough friends (people that hate Oprah? enemy of my enemy is my friend?) that when he jumps on a table and says “ALIENS! ALIENS! ALIENS!” people start to chime in.  A slow clap of extraterrestrial plots.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled.  The world needs more SF–but please, for the love of god, make it good SF.  All in all, Super 8 was good in that the focus was on relationships, but bad in that the relationships were the only good things in it.  If Abrams had spent as much time thinking about the monster as he did about the zombie film, we could’ve had an honest to god effin’ classic.  Yes, J.J., emotion makes a better story, but it’s not a sufficient condition.  Emotion works because we understand it intrinsically.  Give us the shorthand, and we’ll fill in the gaps.  But when half your short hand is monster film, and the other half is conspiracy, and the third half is mystery, and the fourth half is Cloverfield–it becomes a bit of a mess.  I applaud your effort; I promise to see your next film, and the one after that because your beginnings are worth the price of admission.  But if you want me to buy the Blu-Ray with the digital copy and host movie nights where I introduce it to my friends as best. movie. ever. you’re going to need to step up.

I have a few thoughts as to how I would’ve changed it–except I don’t know much about movies so I’ll keep them to myself.  What did y’all think?  Did it succeed, not succeed–will you see it again?  For those who haven’t, what are your favorite monster/alien/SF films in the past few years (or decades) and what are you most looking for in future attempts from Hollywood?

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