by Michael Neelsen
SPOILER ALERT: The following article goes into detail on certain elements of the new film Super 8, so if you wish to know nothing about the movie before seeing it, read no further until you’ve seen the film.
I have been looking forward to Super 8 ever since I saw the first trailer some time ago. I have never been much of a J.J. Abrams fan, but Steven Spielberg’s work from the 80′s and 90′s was supposedly the primary influence behind this film and I adore those films (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, Jurassic Park, etc.). Super 8 was going to bring me right back to my childhood and, according to critics, remind me “why I go to the movies” in the first place. It was going to have that magic feeling that you felt watching the ending to Close Encounters for the first time, or when E.T. first started to fly.
I began to expect something of a Quentin Tarantino-ization of Spielberg films. When Tarantino made Kill Bill (or almost every other movie in his oeuvre), he was taking elements of past films he loved and forging them into something new. For example, there’s a shot in Kill Bill Volume 2 which is taken right out of The Searchers, but it’s given a new context and new life in Tarantino’s universe. Everyone is inspired by things. Seems natural to pay homage to those who paved the way for you.
So I was pumped to see Super 8.
I’ll start with what I liked about the movie (because if you haven’t anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, right?). It got the 80′s Spielbergian tone down pat. This movie genuinely feels like a lost movie from the 80′s that’s been locked away in a vault all this time and just discovered, dusted off and tossed into multiplexes. I think the acting by the children is wonderful. It isn’t a small thing that these child actors can act genuinely well on camera, and then when they are acting within the film for their own little movie, they act terribly like any normal kid. That actually takes some talent. I thought the cinematography was very nice (not counting those horribly invasive lens flares every five minutes). Overall, it was a perfectly entertaining way to spend an evening at the movies. It’s certainly better than the majority of crap that comes out of Hollywood today.
But I wasn’t transported back to my childhood. I wasn’t reminded “why I go to the movies” as the critics have promised. In fact, I was reminded why I don’t go to the movies as much as I once did.
J.J. Abrams doesn’t seem comfortable merely paying homage to the Spielberg universe. He wants to take all Spielberg’s films, toss them in a blender, and literally pour out the exact same ingredients in a different order – but make no mistake, they are the same ingredients. Nothing new. And they don’t taste nearly as good as the original recipe.
As I was watching Super 8 as an embodiment of the film’s target demographic (film geeks and Spielberg fans), my brain kept interrupting the action on the screen and whispering to me, “Okay, we’re doing Jaws now. Okay, now we’re doing E.T. Now we’re doing The Goonies.” Once the inciting incident of the insanely masturbatory train crash everyone has seen (and laughed at) in the trailer takes place, as a fan of Spielberg films, you can’t stop seeing the ingredients pop up in every scene – and not in a good way. It’s like you’re on “Steven Spielberg – The Amusement Park Ride”.
Look! There’s a group of flashlights in the distance running towards us through tall grass (E.T.). Oh, haha, that family of kids is so chaotic, just like the family in Close Encounters (only on steroids – the Close Encounters family was never this obnoxious). Listen to the wind blow through those tree branches as that man stands by the telephone wires and we hear giant footsteps in the background – it’s just like Jurassic Park! Oh, watch that cop run around town, talk to angry townspeople and resist the authorities in his quest to “find out what’s going on” just like the sheriff in Jaws! Oh, now the kids are in some creepy cave and putting together childish plans using toys to trick the baddie – just like in The Goonies!
I felt like Abrams was sitting next to me elbowing me in the ribs every scene and whispering, “Remember this one? Remember that?” After a while, I wanted to punch Abrams in the face and say, “Dude, if I wanted to watch those movies, I would just go watch those movies.“
In my opinion, this is not an homage to Spielberg films. This is a ripoff of Spielberg films. Let me explain using the example of Kill Bill again.
Quentin Tarantino has mastered the art of the homage. He takes elements from different films and filmmakers and forges them into something which bears the stamp of those influences, but stands anew as its own work. Kill Bill is fused together from spaghetti westerns, kung fu films, American pop culture, etc. Using the example I stated earlier about the shot taken from The Searchers, Tarantino doesn’t literally lift that shot. First, he makes his black-and-white (The Searchers is in color). He doesn’t have cowboys in the frame – rather, he has a pregnant woman in a wedding dress. He doesn’t have “The Sons of the Pioneers” playing on the soundtrack — instead, he uses the score from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
My point is, he has mixed the shot from The Searchers with various other elements from other films along with his own new additions to the work. It now stands as a uniquely Kill Bill moment. You don’t watch that scene and feel as though Tarantino is nudging you to remember The Searchers (if anything, you feel as though Tarantino would rather you didn’t notice the reference at all).
This is not the case with Abrams and Super 8. Abrams is taking all his ingredients from one filmmaker, one genre, one era in cinema, and trying his hand at replicating it. And since its roots are so easily traced, in our minds we are constantly comparing them, and it’s just flat-out not as good as the original stuff, which then begs the question, “Why do it in the first place?”
As the SlashFilm review points out, Spielberg’s films are so much more focused and simple than Super 8, and they allow us more time to become endeared to the characters and their struggles. When Super 8 tries to cram more plotlines than are necessary into the running time, we start to question why things are the way they are. We start to ask ourselves, “What does Abrams take us for?” I don’t buy for one second that the father character is that uninterested in the well-being of his only child to be more concerned with the townspeople during a massive military takeover of the town and a mysterious (but not too mysterious) monster attack. He actually needs to be reminded that he has a son by a friend? Please. Give me a break. Abrams may be trying to create a child’s perspective on parents in his treatment of this character (that parents don’t really care about kids), but it insults our intelligence and gives the whole story the stench of childishness.
And oh, Lord, the humor in the film (or at times, lack thereof). I’ll sum up the entire approach to comedy in this film in one word: inappropriateness. That is the core of every single joke. “Oh, that guy just asked the kid if he’d like to buy pot from him. It’s funny ’cause it’s inappropriate!” “Oh, that child is beating the hell out of the kitchen table with a bat. It’s funny ’cause it’s inappropriate!” “Oh, the kid calls his friend fat in front of a waitress. It’s funny ’cause it’s inappropriate!”
Also, the ending to the film makes ZERO sense. Again, spoiler alert. So this monster/alien has been trapped here on Earth, a’la E.T. right? And we know that all he wants is to go home (like E.T.). The way we know this is because whenever he touches someone, that person feels the alien’s feelings and can read its thoughts (like E.T.). Okay. But then in the end, all that it takes to get the monster/alien to leave Earth is a little boy yelling at him, “Just go!” and having a ham-fisted meeting of the hearts with lines like, “Sometimes bad things happen. I understand. But you have to go on living.” (Psst! He’s talking about his mom! Do you get it yet?! Huh?! Huh?!)
After this exchange, the alien just decides it’s time to leave and builds his ship out of all the metal in the town in, like, thirty seconds and just takes off. Wait… WHAT?! I thought the alien’s number one objective was to leave Earth. So why didn’t he just leave before the movie even started? What’s the purpose of all the kidnapping, killing and destruction? Obviously, the creature was more interested in destroying humanity than leaving, or else he would’ve just assembled his ship and left before the movie even started. I can almost hear Abrams’ response… “But then we wouldn’t have a movie.”
Exactly. Abrams, what do you take us for?
Oh, and of course, the ship can’t be completed without the boy’s little locket left to him from his dead mother. The whole town and ship stands in silence and waits as the boy desperately holds onto his locket, not sure if he wants to let go of it (or the memory of his mother, in case Abrams’ heavy-handedness didn’t get the message through to you). Finally, the boy lets go of the locket and as soon as it joins the hunk of junk that makes up the alien spacecraft, it is then fully operational and launches into space. I’d like to see the movie that happens if the boy refuses to let go of the locket and the alien is forced to hang around and convince him to let it go (Alien: “Dude, it’s just a freakin’ locket. I can’t finish my ship without it.” Boy: “No! It reminds me of my mommy!” Ad nauseam).
All this said, overall the movie is still a lot of fun. But I can’t call it a really good movie. It’s far too content just ripping off the elements from past works of the producer for a new audience that may not be Spielberg-literate enough to understand that they’re literally being fed last night’s reheated meatloaf (and it never tastes as good as the first meal).
by Michael Neelsen
What the hell happened to “South Park”?
As it turns out, a couple of things. Number one: the show got too big.
I don’t mean too big in terms of popularity. I mean their stories got too big. It seems like every episode now climbs to a life and death situation on the cusp of Armageddon (or at least the end of the town). I mean, seriously… Imaginationland? Cthulu? This is not the same show that used to be about building club houses, bad parenting and learning to read. It’s gotten all wacky on us, and this is nothing new.
I would argue we’ve been on this path for the past four-and-a-half seasons, ever since Season 10 and the killing of Chef. In retrospect, Chef’s death symbolized the death of something else – the show we all used to love.
That brings me to the second problem with the show: It isn’t genuine anymore.
Remember back when the boys got all freaked out because they found a joint in the woods and nobody wanted to touch it for fear of becoming an addict? Or when they were convinced they had to build a ladder to heaven to find Kenny and get their ticket back for the candy shopping spree? And who can forget the countless classic Terrance and Phillip fart jokes? This was a simple show about simple characters executed with simple animation. One of the best elements of the show was that it depicted children as children really are!
Good luck doing that with episodes about battling a monster version of Tooth Decay or stopping a Comic Robot from destroying the planet. Those premises are too massive to allow any time for genuine moments between the boys. It all just devolves into, “Quick! We gotta stop them!” and “Oh, my God! Look out!” After a while, I think creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone forget they’re supposed to be funny, not creating genuinely perilous situations for their construction paper characters to survive.
The worst offender had to be the Britney Spears episode from Season 12, entitled Britney’s New Look. In it, the boys meet Britney Spears who soon kisses the barrel of a shotgun and blows her head off. She survives however, and her handlers pressure her to perform with only her lower jaw attached. The “message” of the episode (every episode needs a message now) was obviously that the industry and fans don’t know the stress they put on their pop culture idols. But if Trey and Matt would get off their soap boxes for thirty seconds, they would re-watch that episode and realize that literally half of that 22-minute episode is devoid of any humor whatsoever. It’s just making points. This show didn’t use to be about making points.
All of this is so disappointing as a long-time fan, because I remember hearing Trey Parker admit over and over again that his favorite moments of the show are always the moments in which they can watch and say to each other, “That’s a real kid. That’s the way a kid would be.” I can’t remember the last time I had that thought go through my head during a South Park episode.
The third and final problem with the new “South Park” in my opinion is that they got lazy. Three-parters? Really? Are you guys that strapped for content? In the past four seasons we have seen at least two three-parters on subjects that hardly warranted one episode, an episode criticizing the film Inception by plagiarizing another criticism of the film from an internet video (Trey and Matt later said they hadn’t even seen Inception before criticizing it – stupid – because they couldn’t find a theatre in Los Angeles that was playing the film – even more stupid), a 200th episode celebratory two-parter in which they literally rehash every old joke ever and the reinvention of tons of characters (from turning Kenny’s death every episode into a “superpower” to the Chinese owner of City Wok actually being a Caucasian man with multiple personality syndrome).
Not to mention the fact that every new episode nowadays basically consists of mercilessly beating the same two or three jokes over the head over and over again until you start to almost resent Trey and Matt for snookering you into watching their show again.
The show we used to know as “South Park” isn’t on television anymore and I don’t think it’s coming back. The last episode of that show took place in Season 9. After that, the show became a spotty, if sometimes very funny but mostly bizarre, cartoon that makes you completely forget about what once was and what geniuses Trey Parker and Matt Stone once were.