I think I know what you’re thinking. Why throw these two movies together? I mean, they’re both good, and newish, but… Aside from that? Well, for one, I saw them pretty much back-to-back over the past day, so, temporally, they’re related, I guess… But that’s not why they’re here side by side. Nope. I could have done separate posts if I wanted to, I’m not lazy. They’re side by side because, seeing them so close together, they’ve formed a thematic link in my web of cinematic memories, they’ve done it quickly, and they’ve done it emphatically.
What’s the link? Aside from being directed by two of the hottest young directors in Hollywood, Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Pilgrim) and JJ Abrams (MI3, Star Trek, Cloverfield, Super 8), these are very different films. Wright’s is structured like a video game and follows around a bunch of twenty-something hipster Canadians. It’s about respecting others and oneself in the face of a breakup. It is based on a comic book. Abrams’ film is equally steeped in its directors love for the source material, but that source material is very different. Super 8 is a Spielbergian alien mystery film, an attempt to reclaim the sort of blockbuster that ruled theaters in the late 70s and early 80s. Its protagonists are a group of awkward middle school kids with a movie to make. No Canadians… So what, considering these aesthetic differences, struck me as similar about these films?
Well for one, they both wear their love for the culture they emulate on their sleeves, and just about everywhere else. Head-to-toe, these films love what they imitate structurally and thematically, and, recall, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Part of these films’ mission is to flatter the epic video games and summer sci-films that inspired the directors and so many other eager kids to fall in love with storytelling and culture and imagination in the first place. They also flatter the people who remember that initial spark – who were their when The Legend of Zelda or Close Encounters changed something in the way they viewed the world, their friends, their being, and their future. So that’s one thing. They are sincere in their love for having been a kid in 1980 and discovering something. (Much more sincere than more blatant attempts at 80sploitation like Transformers, GI Joe, The A-Team, The Karate Kid, The… must I go on?)
But more than that, I would say that these films, today, are profoundly misunderstood. I am vehement that, like The Goonies and The Sandlot, they will be appreciated much more in ten or twenty years than they are right now.
Pilgrim is already becoming a cult classic of sorts. Critics liked it well enough, some saw it as marginally visionary in its ability to use the language of video games to tell a compelling cinematic story, but it was largely misunderstood, especially by the droves of normal American people who, on its opening weekend, en masse, did everything but go see the film. Nobody went and saw this film! It made $31.5 in American theaters. Period. Not on the opening weekend. Ever… Super 8 will make that much dough by tomorrow, its third day in theaters. I went on Wikipedia to look up the box office for this film, and was shocked by that number, considering how many people I know that love this film. If I had been drinking coffee when I looked up the number, I would have spit it all over my computer screen in disgust.
None of these above facts are the reason I didn’t see the film in theaters though. I can be fickle about reviews, I admit, and generally I don’t want to see a film that, it is commonly recognized, is not going to recoup its production budget, but, in spite of whatever information was spinning around me in the months the film was in theaters, I was really excited about this movie. I was downright eager. Truthfully, I honestly don’t know why I didn’t see this movie until yesterday. I wanted to. I remember wanting to a lot. (I can relate to how I felt then, though, because, in spite of writing here about how excited I was to see X-Men: First Class, I have miraculously and depressingly managed to skirt around it for more than a week now! Sigh.)
But I saw it last night. I saw it amidst the whir of a gathering party, with everything around me trying to distract me from Michael Cera’s plaintive whine, but, in a testament to what Wright did with this film, I could not and would not look away. How could I? Every frame is packed with some completely innovative story-telling beat. Look away for one second, you miss ten awesome things that enhance the story. Wright found a way to turn the screen around his actors into an interactive playground full of wonderful toys that make you chuckle.He makes Toronto, Canada seem like a magic, beautiful kingdom at the center of the pop culture universe! (I’ve never been to Toronto, but this is probably the first time Toronto has ever been presented in this way.) At one point Scott comes home boasting he has a date to his roommate Wallace. He enters to the Seinfeld theme and every ridiculous thing he says is backed by canned laughter. Ramona melts snow when she skates. Knives Chau and Scott play a ninja DDR game that looks more fun then actual DDR. When Scott finally makes a realization about himself, an announcer shouts “Scott has gained self-respect!” and, before your eyes, the protagonists’ stats go up. The protagonist has stats!
I don’t play video games. Doesn’t matter one bit. I imagine someone who does squealed with delight at every reference to hammerspace and nega-characters, because they no what those things are. I do not, in truth. But I recognized those beats for what they are. Love. Affection. They are a thank you to 8-bit games, to arcade brawlers, to manga and sitcoms and indie rock bands and martial arts movies and anything that ever let us be a nerd when we were kids. Anything that ever let us be passionate. Pilgrim is a film that lets this passion seep through its thoroughly modern, dysfunctional cast of misfits who can text each other while sleeping, who use sarcasm as a distancing tool, and who fear selling out. They are nerds who want to be hip, but the filmmaker surrounds them with everything that makes them, without them even realizing it, cool already – which is also all the stuff that makes them nerds. I am now a nerd for this film. I have to watch it again. I could watch it a thousand times and still not catch every little magical thing Wright did to make this movie burst over with sheer innovation and love.
Super 8 is a much simpler film, but, by god, it is no less affectionate or effective. Abrams has thank you notes he wants to share as well, but his are for Spielberg and Lucas, John Carpenter and George Romero. These are men who deserve thank you’s, and the last decade of film has truly done them no service. Event filmmaking as they created it has largely been subsumed by a machine. A Michael Bay and Marvel machine. Abrams brings the magic back. He brings back the kids. You know, little people who tap into our repressed emotions and make us feel for the people when the big things go boom. Not the wiseass Shia Lebouf plays in Transformers. No, Elliot and his friends and siblings who want to save their alien and the Goonies, searching for lost treasure. Remember them? Good, Abrams does too. Hollywood doesn’t.
Considering this, I expected Super 8 to leap right into the outstretched arms of critics starving after years of unoriginal film-making. They would embrace and tell each other how much they missed each other, crying that they would never part for such a long period again. Yeah, that didn’t happen. Super 8 has an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, that’s pretty good, but look at most of the reviews the aggregator is considering good. A few of those are colored by sheer awe at how good this movie is, but most of those are skeptical at best. I loved this film, end to end. This is good film-making that’s sole concession to high-minded pandering is that its a good film about good film-making. It’s one of those films that reaffirms your belief in the magic of cinema. I’ve admitted I abundantly love superhero movies like Thor, but I love those because I love superheroes, not because I love movies. Those movies are not magical, movie-people’s movies. They’re not transformative. I love The Dark Knight, Avatar, Inception, and Super 8 because I love movies. Once a year we get one of these films that, sure, has its problems, but that absolutely engrosses you and makes you thankful for this screen and these people who can light it up with this imagination. We should embrace these films for what they — like a delicious meal you didn’t expect and that makes you remember why you go out searching for new dining experiences rather than just go to the same old fast-food joint every night — give to us from the moment we have them. So why haven’t critics jumped on the band wagon?
I do not want to spoil the movie, but suffice it to say that there are a lot of quiet moments and a lot of very loud moments in this film. I loved them equally. Many did not. Many felt Abrams did not achieve the level of congruity between his grounded, human story and his action, alien story that Speilberg would have. The feeling is that he shouldn’t have evoked Speilberg so blatantly is he didn’t have the ability to put his money where his camera is and earn his very sincere, ET-like moments.
I, on the other hand, felt those moments. I felt an earned connection between the 12 year old boy who escapes his sadness by building models and doing make-up for his friend’s zombie movie, and the petulent alien we don’t see very much of who lashes out after years of arrested development. There is a psychic link there, one you are left to infer, but one which adds a deep value to the meaning of this film. I quote Mark LaSalle of The San Fransisco Chronicle:
“Between the lines, “Super 8” harks back to old-fashioned sci-fi movies in a more sophisticated way, in its suggestion that monsters don’t come out of nowhere. In the 1950s, the vision of suburban normality was so assertive that it contained its own shadow. And so the monsters and the blobs and the pod people of that era were like some inner scream taking physical form. Likewise, in “Super 8,” there’s the sense that, whatever the logical reason for the turmoil that takes place, there is something spiritual at work, that some essential harmony has been devastated within two disparate families, and that only something epic can set it right.”
Because I felt this connection between the alien and the boy (the same imagined connection you are supposed to infer between the boys and the dead pirate in The Goonies and the boys and the dead body in Stand By Me), the film’s ending seemed earned. What Joey says to the alien to make him understand what is at stake, and Joey’s final gesture of moving on, were the most touching things I’d seen on screen all year. It didn’t matter to me that the scenes involved a giant alien and a magnetic spaceship, just like it didn’t matter to the kids making their Super 8 film that they were trying to grasp the meaning of love and of story through a silly zombie movie. This is what film is all about. It is about inferred connections that add meaning and plot devices that add depth. There is even an on-the-nose discussion about this very thing early in the film that just screams out Abrams’ awareness of this very fact.
It’s all a construct yes, but it doesn’t have to feel like one, and most of the time, this film does not feel constructed. It feels as effortless as the kids shouting over each other as they prepare for a scene. I’m not even grading the film on a curve here -one which asks that the construct makes sense (any Transformers film does not pass the test). No, this film passes with flying colors on its emotional merits, no curve needed. You can get lost in this film, as I do whenever I see the room Abrams and his team have created for the protagonist. The DVD should have an extra just about all the little knick-knacks he has in his room. I know, watching the film, that these collected objects (Star Wars posters and Batman comics and little army men) have fostered and molded this shy but imaginative boy, even if I don’t know what everyone of them means, and when I see them all arranged the way the filmmaker has arranged them, a magical spell falls over me and I want to know more. This is the mistake many critics make. They assume that this film was made mostly for them (the crowd that was, like Abrams, 13 in 1979 or therabouts), and so they don’t account for the group of 13 year olds that will watch this at a summer camp in 2019 and not care a lick who this was made for. The Sandlot wasn’t made for me. I didn’t grow up in the ’60s and I was four when the film came out. It still transformed by summer camp experience whenever we put it on. The magic of childhood and of discovery is universal. It has no expiration date, and when done right, it can transcend the inital nostalgia that sells the movie. Nostalgia for a lost childhood is much more powerful then nostalgia for 1979. This movie does childhood right. Everyone just won’t know it until after this film ages out of being considered a nostalgic movie first, and a movie about childhood second.
And so, in one day, I saw two films that will both end up being two of my favorite films I have ever seen. I will see them many times more. When my kids are ready for some cursing and video game violence, I will encourage them to see these films many times, perhaps as many times as I will have seen them. Maybe they will have never played Ocarina of Time or seen Close Encounters. It won’t matter to then one bit, because they’ll have seen Scott Pilgrim and Super 8. They’ll enjoy these films about discovery and camaraderie on their own merits.
And, yes, I discovered them both yesterday! That is a good day for me, but also a perplexing one, because somehow I feel that, in unabashedly embracing these films, I am somehow ahead of the curve. Today, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is considered too forward-thinking for its time. Super 8, the story goes, is too concerned with looking back to the past. They are both, for the time being, misunderstood in this regard. In fact, they are both looking at and thinking about the same thing — culture that inspires us. They are post-modern pastiches about the first love of making popular culture your own (by playing in rock band, making a movie with your friends, painting model movie monsters, thinking of yourself as a video game hero) and discovering how empowering that can be, and they never lose sight of the quality story elements, stellar acting, and first-rate production that make cinema such a magical thing. They deserve to be celebrated, and, eventually, they will be in the most rewarding way possible. Because someday, thirty years or so from now, directors a little younger than me will make similar films thanking Wright and Abrams for the work they did in inspiring them to pick up a camera and tell a story. The cycle continues. We thank our heroes for casting the magic spell on us. JJ Abrams, Edgar Wright… Thank you.
PS – I couldn’t leave these two films without a comment on the casting. These are two phenomenal, flawless casts. What the actor’s did in Pilgrim is so hard – they made the detatched, fast-pace, hipster style of O’Malley’s comic book work and sound and feel good on the screen, and they made the over-the-top elements of the fights with the seven evil exes seem both absurd and, somehow, grounded. It has to be nearly impossible to make video-game and manga inflected diologue like this film’s sound as natural and funny coming out of real people as it does in this movie. So props to every evil ex for making every shouted line and horrible pun work! As for Super 8, the kids are being universally praised for their masterful performance as an everygang of middle schoolers. I want to point something out that is completely unoriginal but I feel needs to emphasized anyway. The Fanning sisters must be mutants… They’re must be chemicals involved in their united unnatural ability to act preturnaturally natural. Can one take acting steroids? Can one administer acting steroids to babies? If so, I lobby that an investigation be launched against Elle and Dakota’s parents! (This is my way of saying that Elle Fanning is phenomenal in this film and that she should be nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. I do not actually endorse persecting the Fanning’s. I am sure they are very nice people!)