Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A CASE OF TWO SPIELBERGS


SUPER 8: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Kyle Chandler, Noah Emmerich
Director: J. J. Abrams
Runtime: 112 min.
Verdict: Right from the title, it’s a strangely superficial exercise.
Genre: Mystery, Thriller

PAUL: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen (voice), Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman
Director: Greg Mottola
Runtime: 104 min.
Verdict: Much like the alien at its heart, it is a warm little film. And strangely familiar. There’s a reason.
Genre: Comedy, Adventure

        For reasons totally obvious I am reminded of that little development in Mahabharata where Lord Krishna’s forces are given to Duryodhan while his presence is blessed to Arjun. Oh, no one-to-one mappings please, none intended, and none to be taken. You see, if it wants to look like a Spielberg, wants to sound like a Spielberg, has the blessing of Spielberg, then we probably need to consider the Spielberg angle first, especially considering that Mr. Abrams’ film uses a lot of mini-genre shorthand and references, and assumes we’ll fill the gaps. I’m game, I say, more or less. If a film can provide us with a ripping yarn that somehow manages to exist without a subtext, I say more power to it, although I’ve little to no idea how one ought to go about avoiding any sort of subtext. I mean, every decision out there on film reveals something, no? Leave aside the Nazis from a Spielberg for a second. The very fact that the killer shark invading peaceful waters is an antagonist that deserves to be blown to smithereens, while people are earmarked well in advance to be munched by the Tyrannosaurus is something of equal interest too. Especially when the Tyrannosaurus is not supposed to die. Times have changed. If one were to consider Super 8 as an anthology of the greatest hits of Spielberg, where the alien creature is a cross between those of CE3K and War of the Worlds, where the 80s-suburban quickly transforms into an aughties-warzone, and where the army is shorthand for evil (which roughly equates to Nazi), or Paul as a sort of Spielbergian remix, where the cute little alien is also the one who’s teaching the outsiders the ways of America, where men dressed in black have their own organization, where belief in intelligent design is a joke (any auteur-filmography which has extra-terrestrial beings and the Holy Grail co-existing is causing one, in my opinion), I might not have much reason to disagree.
        Super 8 is the more interesting one here, more interested in being a Spielberg, and it has more contradictions in it. As a narrative exercise intended in the Spielbergian mold Super 8 is fairly decent. Mr. Abrams is not an alien-filmmaker as much as he is a creature-filmmaker, which sort of gives him the ideal genre expertise to pull off a Spielbergian narration. For a frame of reference, John Mctiernan (Predator), James Cameron (Aliens), John Carpenter’s The Thing and Spielberg’s very own E.T. are creature-features, and barely muster any deal of fictional science. More than any film in this alien-creature subgenre, Predator is a film most worthy to be considered for its narrative strategies, especially considering the nature of Super 8, and the creature within, but mostly because it is a film I have watched only recently and because Mr. Mctiernan is the rare filmmaker who gives his antagonists a super personality. Mr. Abrams, much like in E.T., intends to draw a parallel, between his protagonist and the creature, something which Mr. Mctiernan did magnificently, for there’s no one on this planet who could’ve stood in front of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Those are some of the great movie moments, when the predator rips apart his http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifelectronic weaponry and helmet and roars, and when Schwarzenegger asks him who the hell it is, it replies with the same question directed at the man himself – who the hell is he? That is personality, and Mr. Abrams’ creature has none of that.
        I’m reminded once again of Keith Uhlich’s examination of criticisms that accuse movies of anthropomorphism, and Mr. Abrams’ two mostly opaque creatures, one because it has been designed so (Cloverfield), and one because it is largely hidden from plain sight (this one here). What is emotion in E.T. (the creature’s longing for home and stuff) is exposition here, and is partly justified considering that Mr. Abrams mostly adopts a tone of mystery rather than adventure. The creature is mostly a device to trigger fear, a device to let Mr. Abrams construct jumpy set-pieces and show them off, where the creature announces its presence in a fashion more akin to a scary film, like in the reflection of pool of petrol in a gas station, or in the background of a shallow-focused shot, and its function is to direct the narrative, much like Cloverfield, inwards rather than outward, unlike Mr. Spielberg, who in movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and CE3K caused the inward to look outward, where the outward was more or less a reflection of the inward (classical fable stuff). That leaves Super 8’s creature more or less a placeholder. Not exactly the way to go if you’re channeling a Spielberg. Matters are complicated further if the creature in question is not easy on the eyes, and with its gigantic size and its complicated contours and virtually indistinguishable eyes, Mr. Abrams seems to be consciously discouraging emotional identification of any kind.
        Stack it up against Mr. Mottola’s Paul, who wears shorts, is considerably shorter (short enough to be the inspiration for ET’s height), is more James Franco than Seth Rogen, and who’s design is more or less simple, who doesn’t need a whole lot of visual aid from the filmmaker to get his point across, and who more or less acknowledges his role to be a R-rated validation to a couple of Apatow men. If Spielberg has always been about a little kid’s awe for adventure and his refusal to grow (most gloriously confessed in Catch me if you Can), the Apatow men and their buddies here represent a celebration of arrested development. Paul and Paul exist to encourage this good-natured nerdy innocence by causing a world that believes in the simplistic values and emotions of a Spielberg. This is an American roadtrip movie that is more about a ride through geekdom (or pop-culture’s definition of it). It is a fantasy Hollywood land (and by keeping the San Diego Comic Con in loop there’s a clever joke I think is funny but not know why), and yet it is just as much “real” as the largely unspecific middle-of-anywhere suburb of Super 8. It is a fictional town called Lillian, somewhere in Ohio, and if it were Manoj Night Shyamalan at the helm of it, he might have supplied us with The Town.
         And no, that wasn’t intended merely as a joke, and as a matter of fact I suspect there’s an underlying cynicism in Mr. Abrams’ Super 8 that, unlike Paul, cannot seem to fully embrace the characteristics of a Spielberg, and instead consciously tries to shy away from them. His kids are not the least bit innocent, and the principal trio here does not exhibit the readiness we ascribe to the cycle gang in E.T. or the Rowling wizards (Spielberg was one of the frontrunners to adapt the books). The other ones are traits more or less, with the pyromaniac lent an especially annoying one. There is an uncomfortable blend of horror and familiarity to the proceedings wherein we know that the principal characters would come out all happy and warm and yet people filling the background might die. And they do. The alien does kill them. It is all sort of peeled, wherein the cheerful innocence of the opening half lit generously by the sun gives way to a mostly dark latter half, and wherein the intention seems to be shifting the blame of the monstrosity from the alien on to the humans. We all remember the reception that was given to War of the Worlds. The army (US Air Force here) is especially ugly starting a forest fire and all, and even going ahead and murdering a few citizens. A few of the weapons, including tanks, start malfunctioning and start firing in every which direction. Spielberg’s Nazis feel cartoonish before this bunch, and yet they were Nazis, not the Army within, which here becomes the enemy within. Or maybe, if we consider both the Army and the alien as outsiders in this “innocent” town, it is the former that causes cold destruction, while the alien is merely “seeking revenge”. And just to make things a little spicy, the alien creature does relish human meat. Oh yeah, I’ve never ever seen a bleak Spielberg film so devoid of humanity, and as far as the army is concerned he made the great Saving Private Ryan.
        This whole fictional universe compares starkly to that of Paul, where there’s bright sunlight throughout, where the night only serves to provide an atmosphere for the truly awesome to happen, and where there is a sense of optimism around. The stakes are remarkably low, just a few folks involved, and Paul’s gesture to invite the one person whose life his arrival screwed is genuinely warm. It is a hilarious film, human and harmless, and where humanity is not just limited to humans. Three tits find approval across the board. And when two comic-book geeks masquerading as cops die, one in an explosion and the other driving off a cliff, it’s all in good spirit. The thing is they were not bad enough. And that was the only bit that bothered me.


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