Sunday, July 10, 2011

"Super _________ 8": A Flashy Disappointment


The Memsahib and I had a lovely dinner last night and then went to see "Super 8," written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg.   Kids.  An alien presence of some sort.  A middle-class family setting in a small Middle America town.  Sound familiar?  "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"; "E.T."; "Goonies" (Spielberg story and co-executive producer [no aliens but a menacing disfigured guy]); "Gremlins" (Spielberg produced).

Uh, this movie isn't like those.

It isn't necessary for a Spielberg-influenced film to be like earlier, beloved Spielberg-influenced films for it to be a good film.  A good film can be violent, lots more violent than those earlier films.  Lots more.  I like violent action movies where stuff gets blown up and the alien presence isn't a positive thing for the population.  And I liked this movie.  I didn't get bored.  There was a chuckle or two. 

But I didn't like it a lot, and neither did the Mem.   Tell me true:  When you turn on the TV and see that "Close Encounters" or "E.T." is on, don't you linger?  I can't imagine I will do so when I stumble over this one a few years from now. 

"Super 8" has received sensational reviews.  Part of this is Spielberg.  Part of it is J.J. Abrams being the flavor of the month.  Part of it is the charm of the child actors who carry the film.  The story, such as it is, moves along smartly.   The effects are terrific, if somewhat overdone (no train in the history of trainwrecks wrecks ever wrecked like this train wrecked, or for as long). 

But the movie has three problems:

First:  The plot was full, and I mean full all the way up to the chock, of holes.  Huge.  I can't tell you what they are without spoiling the film.  Drop me an email if you don't care about spoilers and I'll tick off a few.  When I say "plot holes" I don't mean things like "there's no such things as aliens"; I mean plot elements that don't make any sense even after you have suspended disbelief and are willing to listen to a story about kids tracking down some malignant presence in their town. 

So what? you say.  It's a sci-fi thing, it doesn't all have to make sense.  Oh, but it does, after a point:  Once you have the illogical menace (a nasty alien presence) established, everything else has to be dramatically consistent.  Reality has to be the stick in the ground that creates the tension when the menace comes up against it.  This movie violates this principle that I just made up time after time with the result that the ending is so dopey that Abrams has no idea what to do with it when it arrives.   The film just ends abruptly, as though the director is fearful that the whole thing would fall apart if anyone thought about the final scene too closely.  (It would.)  The upshot, for me, was that I felt kind of taken when the screen went dark at the end.  (I note that people in the theater just sat there, not stunned by the denouement, but thinking there had to be more.)

Is this just me being too persnickity and logical?   The nonsense of the plot doesn't seem to bother the critics.  Answer:  No.  More people should think like me.  Everyone, in fact.   Seriously, I was still able to enjoy the show even while shaking my head.   The point I want to make here is that this carelessness (and the next two points) are serious flaws that keep a pretty good movie from being a great one, or even a memorable one.

Second:   I mentioned the charm of the young actors.  They are charming and mostly skillful (standout:  Elle Fanning), and at the outset of the movie you think that you will come to care about them in the same way that you cared about Eliot in "E.T." and some of the characters in the other Spielberg products mentioned above.  But while this movie seems to feature interpersonal drama and feelings and stuff that should cause the audience to identify with these characters, Abrams's heart is not in it.   There are a couple of parent/child conflicts, and a family tragedy, but they seem pasted on to the roaring action and explosive, mass-destruction, ear-shattering effects that dominate the picture.  It's nice that they tried to make a special-effects blockbuster with a heart, but its beating is drowned out by heavy things crashing to earth after flying improbably through the air, incredibly destructive attacks, mass hysteria, and, yes, explosions.

Finally:   Twice now I've said that the kids are charming.  This is a credit to their personal charisma and their acting skills.  Unfortunately, Abrams seriously, seriously attacks their natural appeal by making them incredibly foul-mouthed.  These are supposed to be 14- and 15-year-old boys (and a 15-year-old girl) who are somewhat precocious.  The year is 1979.  I don't have the research on the speech habits of kids of that age at that time, but I had a hard time believing that these kids, who are ambitious and bright (although apparently not the best students), would speak with the casual vulgarity Abrams has assigned to them.   Whether or not kids like this spoke like this in 1979:   Irrespective of verisimilitude, the profanity transformed them from people we are attracted to into somewhat thuggish twerps.   Used skillfully, the rare instance of cuss words coming from the mouth of a child can be funny or dramatic; but here, the profanity was way overemployed and did absolutely nothing to establish a rooting interest of the audience in these teenagers.   When the film was over, a disapproving remark was the first thing out of the mouth of a parent sitting next to us who had brought her child (it's PG-13).

So if you plan to see "Super 8," leave the kids at home.  

And don't take the train.

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Note on our filmgoing experience:  Among the unusual things that happen in the movie as the result of the escape of the alien presence is that the town's power flickers and sometimes goes out altogether.  When the Memsahib and I arrived home, our garage door would not open with the built-in opener, and we soon learned that our side of the street had been without power for close to four hours.   In the movie, a utility worker trying to fix a power line meets a predictable fate, but CoServ managed to hook our block back up without any of the local malignant presences taking notice.

[SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER]   In what can only be seen as an homage to the very first "Star Trek" teevee series, every black character in this movie with a speaking part is killed.   Even casual fans of that series know that on the rare occasions when a black crew member would appear (Lt. Uhura aside, probably spared because she was doing series creator/producer Gene Roddenberry), he was a goner.

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