Creating a movie both engaging and satisfying to a discriminating viewer—that requires more than a healthy seed of an original idea, more than professional acting, more than astonishing special effects. Super 8 failed to satisfy me and my wife and engaged us only superficially, and then only up until near the ending. For those with a special desire to see Kyle Chandler in a new role, or a new monster in an old role, this movie certainly can satisfy, in some way, but the production could have been much better, probably at every stage from writing to directing. If this were a minor flaw, I would not be writing this post.
Kyle Chandler performed without flaw, as far as I could tell, and the young acting talent did well with some challenging roles. The monster was frightening enough, under the limitations of the weakness amplified throughout this science fiction thriller. But those weaknesses could have been avoided. My wife and I walked out of the theater embarrassed at our lose of two hours and $18.
Lady in the Water
It reminded me of a time when I exited a theater in 2006, after viewing Lady in the Water: an aftereffect of watching a move while being aware that other movie watchers may be watching you foolishly waste your time. In Lady in the Water, the acting was superb (perhaps even better than in Super 8), but the story was unbelievable (even more than in Super 8). The principle weakness resembles that of Super 8, albeit perhaps more pervasive: Strange things being explained after the fact. In other words, if you hated that 2006 fantasy you would probably hate Super 8.
Preparing for the Strange
I understand that a science fiction need not have every strange thing carefully prepared. Of course not. But the general rule for all storytelling should generally be followed, at least part-time: Something far out of the ordinary should be preceded by some preparation, even if only a partial explanation, at least sometimes. Vary from that once or twice, if you will, but disregard the principle entirely (as in Lady in the Water) and you should expect a discriminating viewer to be greatly disappointed.
In a science fiction film, not every strange thing needs preparation; we expect to be surprised in a predictable way. But some things sometimes need preparation, and in Super 8 viewers can become bewildered, not at the extreme destruction from a super monster but at the super human emotional abilities of teenagers: Most of them adapt far too readily to stress that is beyond normal human abilities. Forget the super destructive power of the alien monster; what about several teenage companions who consistently display super emotional powers to withstand that monster?
I realize that young persons sometimes behaved a bit too bravely in E.T., and the storytelling was masterful in that film, but that fault is magnified in Super 8, for the lengthy preparation in E.T. is absent, and the monster is indescribably more monstrous.
In science fiction, we don’t necessarily need preparation for a monstrous unseen something to break out of a train car or for a car to drive onto train tracks and purposefully crash into an oncoming train, causing a derailment; either one is natural to the genre. But for both to occur in quick succession is asking a bit much of the viewer. It would have been forgivable except that the train crash itself appeared to me overdone. That would also have been forgivable except that the teenagers who were almost killed by that crash, as soon as the destruction came to a halt, walked around the devastation to make objective evaluations, examining evidence almost like Sherlock Holmes. Real humans would have run for home, asking questions later, even the most mature humans.
Even that would have been forgivable had those teenagers later acted like normal humans. Instead they became heroes in an unbelievable way, without any preparation to help us believe that they were anything other than normal teenagers.
That alone would not have destroyed the storytelling; we don’t expect perfection. But the ending of Super 8 climaxed in an alien event that needed more preparation to have been reasonably believable. If you love Kyle Chandler or frightening alien monsters, watch this movie; I’ll not spoil it by giving away the ending. Just don’t expect a masterpiece of storytelling.
In Super 8, we are well prepared to empathize with the boy who lost his mother and has great difficulty communicating with his father. While watching this film, we are prepared to love the teenagers; but are not prepared for them to suddenly be super brave or (with one boy) to be a practically-fearless hero. This film could have been much better had it been longer with strange things prepared for, or had it given less emphasis on preparing us to love those kids and more emphasis on preparing us for the weirdness of that monster.
The Fellowship of the Ring
For the best preparation in storytelling, consider the 2001 fantasy-drama The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. That film does not jump into a strange little man disappearing by putting on a ring. We are introduced to a peaceful country scene, something like timeless Wales or Ireland, and we become peacefully aware that hobbits live slightly differently, ever so slightly, with homes built into the hills. What a delightful preparation for us who are watching the film! We are caught up in a story that soon includes a young hobbit who is being prepared for an adventure.
We soon are shown that hobbits are small, after one jumps into the lap of an old friend, a full-sized man. The old wizard is not so strange at first, even when fireworks are ejected from the back of his wagon (to the delight of the believable hobbit children), for the result of his magic resembles our Fourth of July in the U.S.
We hear about the ring from a believable wizard and a believable hobbit, as they talk about a believable journey that Bilbo is planning. Later that night, the almost unbelievable fireworks, and Bilbo’s recounting, to the children, the wonderful adventure of his youth (note that he tells the story in the same way an elder would tell a legend to children, making that retelling more realistic)—that makes the disappearing act, a little later that night, believable, for we have been prepared: We know already that something is special about that ring. We have been introduced to strange things, for they have come upon us little by little, naturally. (I love fantasy.)
We don’t expect that kind of preparation in a science fiction film, but Super 8 takes unpreparedness to extremes, forcing some of us film watchers out of the story, to become aware, while watching the film, of acting and film writing: something that should not happen to anyone while watching the film.
“To begin, I am grateful that the History Channel’s MonsterQuest episode on ‘flying monsters’ in Papua New Guinea revealed to many Americans the living-pterosaur research of Garth Guessman and Paul Nation; but the MonsterQuest expedition on New Britain Island, in early 2009, was not itself a serious living-pterosaur investigation . . .”
From 1994 through 2009, about nine Americans have intermittently (and usually two or three at a time) visited remote islands of Papua New Guinea, searching for flying creatures: a living pterosaur. On Umboi Island, it’s called “ropen,” but it’s also known as “duwas,” and “seklo-bali.”
Now in the morning of shadow waning, Like when the light of morning filled a tomb, Grant us forgiveness: both giving, gaining; Fill us with light: Dispel avenging gloom.