Forgive me for indulging in a subject not directly related to Mormonism or Politics, but there are some thoughts about movies that I wanted to put down. My love of movies started when I first saw Star Wars as a small kid. There were others I had seen before it in the theaters such as a double feature of Pinocchio and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for children, and at another time a King Kong remake that is both better than and worse than the original (don’t get me started on the overlong and pretentious Peter Jackson version). However, it was the space epic that inspired me with the power and potential of the silver screen. It was such a wonderment to me that watching what is considered the boring original Star Trek: Movie was fantastical and exciting to me at a young age. I was hooked, and the later Stephen Spielberg films sealed the deal. As you can see, it also locked me into what genre I would like the most. Science Fiction is my thing.
Having established a baseline on what I wanted to talk about, I now want to compare two movies recently seen from this past year. One of them was loved by critics for the most part while the other generally panned. The movie going public wasn’t impressed by either of them. I can see why and want to explain the reasons. Both have ties to Stephen Spielberg, one of them directly and the other tentatively. The first is Super 8 and the other Cowboys and Aliens, both billed as science fiction blockbusters turned relative duds. why these two instead of the myriad Superhero movies? Because they are essentially the same movie about aliens invading small towns in past American history.
Be warned, I am not afraid of giving out spoilers in my reviews. Having seen so many movies and read so many books in my life, I don’t find spoilers threatening personally. Tell me the twist and I will be more interested in how they come to it than that it has one. Endings? There are only so many ways a story can conclude and a synopsis often gives the hint. Warning finished.
The director of Super 8, JJ Abrams, is not ashamed to admit his movie is a blatant retro-styled (rip off) of early Stephen Spielberg films. On the surface it succeeds as mind boggling, spectacular and even a touching imitation. However, like a fake name brand watch the timing is off and production sub-par. Lets start with the music, that I didn’t even think was a problem until after watching. When a person hums music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T a random person could probably recognize where the tune came from. With the current movies, including this one, music seems secondary and unimaginative. It is certainly forgettable. There is nothing to bring back favorite scenes or characters. The passion of a good soundtrack becomes dead weight.
The other problems can be listed by comparison to what succeeds in the movies it tries to replicate. The worst offense is that children curse every other line of dialogue. The older movies had children curse a few times to make a point of the seriousness they find themselves in or signs of prepubescent growth. Not so with Super 8 where instead of endearment it makes you want to send them to their rooms after washing mouths out with soap. Even if not offended by the language, it is still used more as a statement of when the audience is supposed to be concerned rather than letting the viewer decide. It acts as a poor substitute for the lack of good atmospheric music in tense situations. This is compounded by unbelievability. The older movies are exciting because the special effects help tell the story. Here they point themselves out by too much attention. The train wreck becomes a wreck because a truck doesn’t cause a real train to derail or in this case practically explode in violent contortions. In a world with Youtube there aren’t many people who haven’t seen what the train would do to a semi-truck. By the way, no one dies even while whole cabs fly up and come crashing down where they are running.
Remember when Jaws was cool because we didn’t see the monster? Sure, we all knew what a shark looked like, but once we do see it the magnitude of its size was a shock. Here again the film tries to show parts and shadows to let imaginations fill in until the final reveal. Yet, that final viewing is a let down because its a re-make of another JJ Abrams monster. Size doesn’t impress like the familiar shark because the original monster (with slight variations) is larger and more destructive. Its a let down that many critics noticed. That the director is repeating himself at such a young age is devastating. And the monster’s motives are confusing and contradictory. Sure, it wants to get away from the Military that has taken it prisoner when it crash landed. The audience is supposed to sympathize with it at the end, but that becomes hard when its shown to be a heartless murderer only moments before we are supposed to have compassion. The Frankenstein monster killed out of reaction to his master’s abuse or abandonment. At least with E.T, that the movie is most reminiscent of including time period, there is a genuine reason to love the monster that is not seriously manipulative for a twist moment. This one eats humans for food!
There are two touching scenes within the same movie that shows failure of direction and story telling. The young adults are making a movie, and the kid director has the mantra of “production value” by using unusual real places and events as background where they couldn’t replicate with special effects. In the “fake” movie about zombies the director writes dialogue that enhances poignancy in an otherwise poor production, with the wife of the detective looking into the zombie infestation begs him not to leave her alone. He is trying to get her out of the way as protection and they both express love for each other. In the “real” movie the boy and girl each have a connection by shared tragedy and Romeo and Juliet parental disapproval. There is more a sense of destiny than a real hard earned relationship that is marriage, even if they are only adolescence. It was as if the director and writer ignored their own advice and flipped it around where the “production value” was the foreground rather than the story and relationships. Its not unusual with movies these days. The “wife” turning into a monster pulled at the heartstrings much more than the monster’s escape from abuse.
Cowboys and Aliens
To be honest, I would recommend this movie over the other one. I know, it was a surprise for me too. Watching only the first act wouldn’t have gotten this response, but near the middle it got interesting and actually exciting. Part of it is that, unlike the JJ Abrams movie, this one didn’t take itself too seriously. It at least eventually realized it was suppose to be a fun summer flick. Once that was established, the characters took on some surprising texture.
What went wrong in the first act was overdeveloped archetypes of the Western genre. There is the rough rich rancher who owns the town. His son who has more pride than brains simply because his father keeps him out of trouble (Bruce Dern did better in this almost exact role many years earlier in a James Garner comedy). Then there is the preacher man holding the failing town together and the bar owner caught in the middle of everything. The town “whore” is both mysterious and has a heart of gold. Finally, the stranger with no name or past walks in and changes everything. Makes you want to yawn just thinking about it having been repeated so many times.
With little warning the traditional Western becomes a Science Fiction spectacle with explosions and space ships. It happens so suddenly, if not unexpectedly, that it jars rather than surprises. You almost want to laugh and walk out of the theater or shut off the player in my case. It doesn’t make any sense just like too many scenes in Super 8 scream cutting room floor. They must not teach editing or story flow in film school these days.
Then something surprising does happen; the characters become complicated. At least they do for a light summer action flick. One of the most annoying and flat characters, the son, gets abducted. Those remaining band together to rescue those taken and destroy the aliens. Who is the good guys and who the bad becomes anyone’s guess. In fact, some bad become good in more ways than heroic stunts. And then some are both bad and good, depending on the situation they find themselves in. The woman ends up not who we think she is, but something entirely different. Yet, the common enemy of them all remains the monsters we expect them, nay want them, to be. It helps that they are kind of cool in their own right as powerful foes. The movie is redeemed. The writers learned that relationships earned increase the movie value, even if only by the second half. Its still not a classic.
Wait, what? I wanted to comment about what I think is the best movie of the year (not that I have seen many movies, but considering the picks) that seems to have gotten lots of Mormon fans. My wife dragged me to the theater for this movie and I expected to hate it, but didn’t. My main concern, besides as a chick flick, was that it would have a one note message about racism. That wasn’t the case thankfully. It actually ended up about pride, outcasts, poverty, courage, fulfilled dreams, love, child rearing, and more. From my sources I have been told the film is generally faithful to the book. Not that I would pick it up myself to check. The movie was enough for me, but it was really good. I wanted to mention it not just because I liked it, but as a contrast to so many modern movies. Tender moments are done with care. There was more than a message, but many messages interconnected to each other. Good characters have flaws and even bad ones can change without changing who they are. There was humor among the drama and sometimes at the same time.
Despite some disagreements with the ending and a few other choices, it was a movie about us all and not just stereotypes that are everywhere these days in movies and literature in the name of easy sophistication. I laughed and cried. That is all that is asked for in entertainment. My prediction from anecdotal evidence is this movie will be as loved by Mormons (particularly women) as The Princess Bride has become, with a difference. I think it speaks of the loneliness of marginalization while living in the mainstream of society. He who has ears to hear and eyes to see.
The popular Orson Scott Card book Ender’s Game will be made into a move for real this time. You know this is the case when the characters have been cast with Harrison Ford signed on, the director chosen, and the production company recognizable. Mr. Card may deny it, but considering it will be done by Summit Entertainment I wonder how influential Stephenie Meyer was even if indirectly. She did name it as one of her favorite books and O.S.C. as a favorite author. Incidentally, the movies take the fun out of her books just like her books take out the fun of her brilliant premises. I also wanted to say that the final Harry Potter movie was as exciting and epic as the second to last was choppy and flat. Oh, and the Hobbit will be coming out next December so can’t wait. The end!