Saturday, June 11, 2011

Super 8, or Transformers 3: Dark Side of the Childhood.

Dear M. Night Shyamalan,

Dear J.J. Abrams,

We get it.  You like Spielberg.  So do we.  Everyone does.  The only reason Osama Bin Laden was caught was that, in his haste to order the Jurassic Park Blu-ray, he forgot to change the name on his Amazon account.  Everyone. Likes. Spielberg.

But we didn't need you to make a Spielberg drinking game.  If I did a shot every time there was a lens flare or a child staring wondrously into space throughout Super 8, I would have died of alcohol poisoning halfway through.  Combine that with every other Spielberg homage, and this drinking game's inevitable popularity, you very well may wipe out the entire college population.  You cannot build a work of art on shout outs.  Unless you're a rapper.

And that's what you were trying to do, right?  Maybe not create a "work of art" in the highest sense of the phrase, but to make a movie that years later parents will tell their kids, "This was one of my favorite movies growing up."  Well, you didn't.  Super 8 is fine for blowing off two hours with your friends, but it doesn't have any staying power.  For that, you need personal touches; iconography; characters that matter.  You can't just reuse the ones Spielberg created.

The film starts out strong.  A group of friends filming a movie (cause we all did that when we were kids and life was so awesome and innocent when we were twelve and you'll never have better friends than the ones you had growing up).  And the kids are, thankfully, amusing for the most part.  And full of childhood optimism.  So enters countless ties to Stand By Me, or The Goonies or whatever.  The difference is, in the films you borrow from, the kids move the story.  They are the story.  In Super 8, they don't affect the plot, they react to it.  They exist on a separate plane from the monster movie, until you decide they need to show up and scold the Transformer monster.

What I'm referring to is this:  These kids witness a brutal train crash, in which they somehow all survive (which is fine), and then the crazy black dude (black people are extra scary) who caused the train to crash waves a gun at them and tells them that if they tell anyone about what they saw, that they and their parents, will die.  So, what do they do?  They decide that now they need to use the train crash in their movie.  And the first thing they need to do is get the film (that proves they were at the train crash) developed so that they can use it in their movie.  They're scared for maybe thirty seconds.  I don't know about you, but when a black man holding a gun tells me to do something, I do it.

Nope.  Not these kids.  They go on filming their movie like nothing traumatizing happened.  The fact that the Air Force is all over their town, that all the dogs ran away, or that the main character (Joe) stood amidst the train crash and literally watched a train door get thrown up into the air (by what was obviously a Transformer some sort of monster) doesn't phase them.  It's totally more important to make a movie so that Joe can get into Elle Fanning's pants even though their dads hate each other because Elle's dad got Joe's mom to cover a shift at the steel mill for him the day Joe's mom got crushed by a steel beam.  My run-ons and lack of punctuation are deliberate, don't judge me.

Seriously, though.  The beginning of the movie is the funeral for Joe's mother.  When Elle Fanning's alcoholic father shows up to the funeral, Joe's police officer father freaks out and throws him in a squad car.  The audience is left with the impression that Elle's father is responsible.  But we want to know specifically how he is responsible.  Later, the big reveal is that Elle's dad got Joe's mom to cover his shift because he was drunk.  That's right.  He did not drop the beam on her.  He didn't operate the machinery while under the influence.  He just got her to cover his shift.  Let's all throw a hissy-fit because the alcoholic was being responsible.  Also, why was a 110-pound woman working in a steel mill?

Wait, where were we?  I think every film review should have an interjection over all the ludicrous plot points. Don't even get me started on the fact that I'm almost positive that Super 8 cameras have to be constantly cranked in order to film (not dropped on the ground and abandoned).  Damn it, I'm doing it again.

So, it turns out that the Transformer mysterious monster-that-we-still-haven't-had-a-good-look-at-and-the-kids-totally-ignore is really an alien that's been held captive by the government for about thirty years.  It just wants to go home, but the government is the government and they couldn't just let it leave!  It could have weapons of mass destruction.  So instead of letting it rebuild its spaceship with the Allspark metal cubes it's looking for, they tortured it for a while.  And then they put it on a train, which was obviously a brilliant idea.  The kids finally find all this out on their quest to save Elle Fanning, because they know that their teachers keep all of their secret government documents hidden in a trailer outside of the school.

Anyway, like I said, Elle Fanning gets kidnapped by the Transformer the monster, and they decide that they should go save her.  Because they're kids, and unlike the Air Force they have the cure-all power of love and innocence.  So they go into the Transformer's lair because Joe knows where it is and forgot to tell anyone, and watch as Megatron eats a human being.  This is also after they've witnessed the Transformer destroy a school bus and kill half-a-dozen soldiers.  So, logically, they light some fireworks to distract Megatron while they save Elle Fanning.  When Megatron inevitably corners them, he eats them.

Oh, wait.  That's not what happens because Joe says, "C'mon bro.  Just go home.  I know life is rough.  My mom totally died.  You just have to live your life."  So Megatron totally forgets the fact that he's been held captive and tortured for decades, and lets them go; promptly flying away in a spaceship he constructs with his little cubes that he retrieves because apparently he built a huge electromagnet out of some microwaves and a water tower.

Honestly, I could have overlooked the plot holes, the unexplained electromagnets, a dad overreacting to the cause of his wife's death, even the childhood ignorance over what's taking place, if the film had been coherent.  But this mish-mash of imminent death and danger transcribed over a light-hearted childhood adventure just doesn't work.  You can't have people being eaten and slaughtered in War of the Worlds type alien horror sequences, and end the film with a twelve-year-old enlightening a homicidal, sentient alien being.  In Jurassic Park, the kids knew that if they got cornered by the T-Rex, they were dead.  In Jaws, when a shark was in the water, the kids didn't chase after it with fireworks, they got the hell out of the water.  On the other hand, in E.T. when the government took E.T. hostage, the kids rescued him.  But people weren't getting massacred left and right.  It has to be one or the other.  Complete obliviousness (and protection) from the threat of violence, or unrelenting slaughter.

To further exemplify this, the superhero movies do it the same way.  Most of them take the protection from violence route.  In Spiderman, Iron Man, and X-Men, people don't just get horrifically massacred.  Sometimes, they die, but that's a major plot point.  We're willing to overlook minor plot flaws, because they're within the realm of suspendable belief for that universe.  In X-Men: First Class, Havok's laser (or whatever), cuts through a stone (or metal, it's hard regardless) statue.  When it hits a person, the person falls down.  No one cares.  If you were watching The Dark Knight, which takes the other approach, and people were getting shot and burned and constantly presented with the very real threat of being blown up, and then someone got shot with a laser and didn't die, I think you'd notice.

So how am I supposed to accept that these kids see an alien massacre an army squad, and eat a person (did I mention that the alien eats a person?), and still decide they have what it takes to rescue a fourteen-year-old-girl?  That's one thing.  But then they succeed.  Why not keep up the realism, have the kids venture into the alien's lair, and then get slaughtered for their childish naivety.  I could have appreciated that.  Then you wouldn't just be recycling Spielberg's work, you'd be commenting on it!

I really liked Star Trek,

Dear Filmmaker

P.S.  I like that a lifetime of neglect on the part of the fathers was made okay in the end because they finally hugged their kids.  I also like that this horrible revelation was actually foreshadowed.

P.P.S.  I originally addressed this letter to Shyamalan because of all the horrible not-really-revealing-anything-revelations throughout your film.  I get confused sometimes.

Oh, and readers (I say readers, but I know I'm the only one), this article may have contained spoilers.


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