Monday, July 18, 2011

“Super 8” – Filmmaking 101

How is it that Steven Spielberg gets it, but George Lucas doesn’t? CGI that is, or more specifically, the proper usage of it. Lucas seems to believe that more is better and that, if you can do something, you should. This is how we ended up with ridiculous messes in the three Star Wars prequels and the latest Indiana Jones installment, among others. Now, I love good CGI just as much as the next person. When done right, you hardly notice it and start to believe that Transformers really do exist. But sometimes we miss the days before computers when movies were made with models and actors. We crave a break from mind numbing sound and apoplectic seizures. Super 8 couldn’t have been more refreshing. It’s almost as if Spielberg was trying one last time to reach out to his friend before Lucas literally kills someone with his ego.

Super 8 is a movie about filmmaking wrapped in a monster-movie shell. It’s 1979 and a group of kids set out to make a zombie movie with a super eight camera. While filming at a train depot one night, they are nearly killed by a speeding derailed train. They unknowingly capture a creature escaping from one of the cars, and soon, people and objects start to disappear from town as the military tries to recapture the creature. The kids continue to make their movie, but soon find themselves in danger. Eventually, the monster makes an appearance and it’s…not Godzilla. Come on – you didn’t honestly think I would tell you what the creature is, did you? Let’s just say that it’s more than some mindless, destructive beast, single-mindedly eating people and trampling their houses.

What make this movie great are the little things. The most important little thing is that there are only two pieces of CGI in the film. One is the train wreck – which was spectacular – and the other is the monster, which was done with motion capture. I suppose they could have done the train wreck with models, or wrecked an actual train, but the actors’ parents might have had issues with their children dodging exploding train cars. Everything else was done “old school” and went a long way in making the film feel authentic instead of just another special effects orgy.

Another little thing were the kids. You should know that these actors are all young teens and delivered fantastic performances. It gave the movie a Goonies feel – tempering the seriousness of the situation simply because they are kids. The best part is that you remember them just like you do each of the Goonies. Better still, each kid’s role in the zombie movie mirrors his or her role in the overall film. This is the kind of thing that lofts a good movie into greatness.

Perhaps my favorite thing were the little clues thrown in to subtly indicate the time frame of the story. The clothes they are wearing, background sound coming from televisions, a T.I.E. Fighter hanging in a bedroom, and of course, the super 8 camera. The genius is that these things don’t distract you from what’s happening in the film, but you see them and gain context. I can’t say it enough – this is how movies are supposed to be. Show me the story – don’t just tell me.

It’s really sad that movies like this are so few and far between. I’ve given a lot of credit to Spielberg here, but he was only a producer on the film. I believe his true value was in providing guidance to J.J. Abrams (writer, producer, director), which is not to say Abrams is nothing without Spielberg. I just think in this case, Spielberg led him down the path of more-is-not-better and don’t-do-something-just-because-you-can. It’s just too bad Lucas couldn’t learn that as well.

Rating: Worth every penny and you even get to see the completed zombie movie at the end.

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