Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Caitlin's Review of Super 8

Manufacturing Restraint
a review by Caitlin Murphy
One of my favourite lessons from a Blockbuster movie comes from Jurassic Park.  Though cynics could construe the film’s point to be that “movies about dinosaurs sell toys,” the mayhem unleashed when scientists replicate the Jurassic age had a deeper thematic message.  An old friend of mine used to love referencing the film’s moral whenever a situation called for it: “Just because we can do something,” she’d sing-song, with feigned righteousness, “it doesn’t mean that we should.”  It’s an idea that manages to be pat and profound at the same time; it’s a consideration that feels really absent right now.

Super 8 is written and directed by J.J. Abrams (co-creator of Lost, director of Star Trek, among many other credits) and produced by Steven Spielberg, (who, judging by the sad, sad previews, is executive stamping everything these days).  Set in 1979 small-town America, the story focuses on Joe Lamb, a pre-teen whose mother has recently died, and his group of friends who like to make movies together.  One night, while shooting a scene at a train station, the friends witness a (ridiculously epic) train crash which appears mysteriously intentional.  The crash sets off a predictably ‘unbelievable’ series of events involving FBI covers ups, aliens, crazy coincidences, impossible rescues, absentee parenting, and many, many explosions.
We all know what summer movies are; this time of year signals a genre unto itself.  Lofty expectations for intended blockbusters should, of course, be met with derision.
Pick up your popcorn, check your brain, and enjoy the a/c.  Fair enough.  But.  It’s still  frustrating to see films that are wholly unoriginal, regurgitative, full of stock characters, and tacked-on sentimentality, positioning themselves as though they’re something somehow loftier than that. Which brings me back to Jurassic Park:  filmmakers blissing out on CGI, 3D and other technological innovations are becoming lame, lazy story-tellers who confuse ‘action sequences’ (chases, crashes and explosions) with action (things happening that are significant and felt).  “Special effects” and “production values” are fast becoming oxymorons.  The scale of the adventures in films like Super 8 (government conspiracies, inter-galactic warfare, etc.) has become so massive that it dwarfs and dismisses the humans supposedly involved in them; characters become like ants in the Grand Canyon
(Interestingly, technological advancements in animation have proven much more constructive and enhancing, and haven’t seemed to dull story-writers (witness the enchanting work of Pixar). Perhaps simply because the animated universe is already so magically different from our own.)
What’s of course so endearing about the movie that the boys are making in Super 8 (in the few scenes we see from it) are the limitations they have to struggle against – they’re kids, they have no money, little experience, their parents interfere, film takes three days to develop, etc.  Ostacles are interesting.  We don’t necessarily like having them, but that’s interesting too.  In the absence of obstacles, we typically become bored, confused, aimless, petulant.  Though we wrestle against restraints, they’re usually what give our work some shape, definition and merit, if only for bringing out the fighter in us.

For some reason, watching Super 8, I kept flashing back to Stand by Me, the 1986 Rob Reiner film based on a Stephen King novella.  It was also set in an earlier time (1959) and focused on a group of boys, young teenaged friends, faced with dark, life-changing events that force a coming of age.  It even had a train in it.  Looking the movie up later, I was reminded that the main character, like Joe Lamb, was also dealing with the death of a family member – in this case, his older and better-loved brother. What struck me reconsidering that film is how “little” actually happened in it, and how our sense of “event” has become pretty skewed.  You don’t have to survive a train wreck, expose conspiracies, break into your school, battle an alien, save your girlfriend and let go of your dead mom to have gone through something. Finding a dead body can be pretty crazy too.
Before Super 8 started there was an ad for a new upgrade to the movie-viewing experience: apparently you can now reserve special seats in the theatre that physically manifest the film’s action making it a bodily felt experience.  I couldn’t really imagine what the seats offered beyond various speeds of vibration.  The ad was one of those sad moments where something makes more sense as a parody than it does as truth, but alas. The mistake made here, as in Super 8 and too many other movies like it, is in thinking that experiences need intensification to be more felt.     They don’t; they need enrichment.

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