Friday, June 10, 2011

Out of Sync on "Super 8"

I've spent more time with film critics - at film festivals and through social media - and consuming film criticism in the last year than I have in my whole life. What I've learned is this, however you want to say it:

I am out of sync with film critics. I view films through a different worldview. I respectfully dissent with the ratings - stars, and thumbs, and tomatoes - and the reviews on many many films.

I'm okay with that. I'm 51 years old. I've seen hundreds if not thousands of films since my teen years when my high school job was a cinema usher and I got in free to all of the films. I'm confident both in my worldview - earned through my education and life experiences - and my opinion of film. I like what I like. I don't really need anyone to tell me what to like or why. And it doesn't bother me to have an opinion that swims against the tide of majority critical opinion.

Today is a prime example, as I took my family wife and 12 year old son to see an opening day matinee of "Super 8".

It's fair to say that it's a critical success. Rotten Tomatoes "tomatometer" rating of 82%. Three and a half stars from the man himself, Roger Ebert.

I get why they liked it. I do. For several reasons.

1. Who doesn't want to have a good time at a Summer blockbuster? I do. Especially a Steven Spielberg production. Although directed by JJ Abrams, it has recognizable homages to Spielberg's various movies throughout. The principal allusion to me in Super 8 - set ostensibly in the late 70's (when I was a cinema usher) - was to Spielberg's 1977 "Close Encounters of the Third Kind".

Close Encounters was a pivotal movie for me. I saw it dozens of times with my free movies privileges. I can see so many scenes in my head, like Richard Dreyfuss sitting in his utilities truck at a stoplight getting a sunburn on half of his face. The utility truck is echoed in Super 8, as is a horizontal blue light glare in several scenes. That puts a smile on my face, that recognition of a homage to a scene I've seen in my youth.

2. Amazing visuals. Really, the train crash scene that featured in the trailers is stunning and raises the bar for effects. As are all of the 70's period touches, like the Super 8 camera itself. Not so much with the bad guy (no spoilers), who scurries around blurrily and is not seen clearly until near the very end.

3. Stellar acting, especially from the kids. Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney are marvelous as the kids at the center of the developing chaos for whom puppy love is inevitable. There is some real talent there.

But the kids are also the key to why this film doesn't work for me. The kids are the indicator that, homages acknowledged, this is not a Spielberg film but just a joyless pretender.

As I said, this is a Summer blockbuster. Aimed primarily at teens. And it fails teens.

If you're going to take me back to being a teen, I can't help but notice how different this film is in tone than the Spielberg films that I saw as a teen. They were inventive and adventurous and hopeful. This is dark and foreboding and joyless. Start with the scene where Elle Fanning is introduced riding up in her father's muscle car that she shouldn't be driving. She's not excited and rebellious and spunky. She's just mad and glowering. Yuck. We've degenerated down the slippery slope since Spielberg to Adams's vulgar, swearing, depressed, anxious, disrespectful children.

Don't take my word for the oppressiveness of the tone. I did something that most critics do not do when reviewing a movie like this. I saw it with a 12 year old boy. He's not a shy wallflower who is easily scared in a movie. He's fearless, and he's seen many scarier movies than this (which I regret). His body language as the film progressed told the story. He sank back into his seat. He stopped eating his nachos. He wouldn't respond to his mom's questions if he was alright. He was not alright. He wasn't scared - he was oppressed, almost traumatized, by the intense negative tone and foreboding of the film. Everyone is grim in this joyless tale and it was taking him down. My wife packed him up shortly after the train wreck and took him home. So much for blockbuster.

I stayed and watched the film. I can't say that I enjoyed it. I appreciated some aspects of it, especially the aforementioned recognition of homages. But, you can exactly duplicate a wet-eyed shot of a child from Spielberg, and not capture at all the spirit of Spielberg. What you get instead is element after element of joylessness. A dead mother. A secret surrounding her death that haunts his friend. A deputy sherriff who chastises and abandons his son as he's suddenly caught up in unexpected duty and leadership. Bickering jealous friends. Gruesomely disappearing people. An evil American military (a new Hollywood staple). Dope smoking heroes. It goes on and on and on. And it adds up to a joyless abuse of it's young audience.

Really, I ask you. Does a 12 year-old boy buying a ticket for a Summer blockbuster need to be confronted with the idea that his dog, and all dogs in town, could get snatched and disappear? That's what entertainment has become in 2011 America? No thanks.

Count me with the 18% on Rotten Tomatoes who vote no on this movie. Out of sync with the majority and fine with that. I know what I know. I know that Steven Spielberg was the master of the Summer blockbuster, and this homage is a faint and joyless shadow.

The best part of Super 8, by the way, is the short film that plays during the credits that is the final product of the movie that the kids are making in the plot. It's cute and funny. Opposite in tone to the whole feature film that precedes it. Go figure.

1 comment:

  1. The whole movie you wait for the monster. The movie keeps you ON EDGE the whole movie waiting to find the monster. I wasn't expecting a giant spider. I can't seem to think of what it is missing. Joe tells the monster that not all humans are bad, the monster flies away in his spaceship, the movie ends. I believe I did catch more of the plot than most people caught on. The reason they stuck a 8mm movie in there is because they need a reason for the kids to catch the train-wreck on film. Notice it adds on to half the movie.