Jul 21, 2012

Alien vs Alien

My wife is out of town for the week. So that means that I'm bored. Instead of watching the shows stacking up on my DVR (all of which my wife wants to see), I am hitting up the Red Box and catching up on some movies that I have not been able to see yet. To make this even more fun, I will be blogging my reviews and thoughts about the films. Today's Final Installment: Super 8.

What is wrong with aliens today?  This is something that I noticed in some recent movies that has started to bother me.  When I was growing up, we had some really iconic aliens.  Think back.  There was the plethora of cool extraterrestrials in Star Wars and Star Trek.  You had THE alien in Alien and Aliens.  Then there was the predator in Predator.  I would even include E.T. as one of these guys.  They were recognizable and memorable.  If they were scary, they inspired fear.  But they also were just plain cool.  I remember when I saw Alien.  That thing was terrifying.  It looked horrible.  And it was a complete nightmare.  It had armored skin, even side of it was lethal, and it even had acidic blood - so if you did shoot it, it could kill you with its wound!  That is just vicious.  BUT, the alien was so ... stinking ... cool.  I felt the same way about the predator.  They were terrifying with their hunting helmets on.  And when they took them off, man, even worse.

I don't know filmmakers that came after those epic monsters were worried that they couldn't live up to the standard of awesomeness.  Maybe they were afraid that people accuse them of just making a cheap knock off.  Or it could be that they needed to follow the current mindset of "bigger, gaudier, blockbustier" when it came to their creations.  Whatever the reason, aliens in movies are just not doing it for me.

I noticed the trend back in Independence Day, actually.  I remember that they never showed the aliens in the previews.  My friends and I intentionally didn't read anything or watch anything that might show the invaders - just so they would be ready to be stunned at the big revealing scene.  Then they showed the things.  Whaaaa?  What the heck is that?  Their ships were cool, their attacks were awesome.  They were just stupid.  I mean, look at that thing.  As memorable as the movie is (and trust me, it has a huge following), the alien in it is just about the least memorable thing.  You don't see people with little figurines of that or hear anyone clamoring for more of the shovel headed freak.

This has continued with other movies.  I really have rarely been that impressed with the aliens.  It seems the reliance has been on their technology or their ships instead.  Many times we never even see the alien.  There is a menacing craft doing unspeakable damage.  But the thing piloting is is irrelevant.  Think about The Avengers this summer.  Now, I loved the movie.  Absolutely loved it.  But was anyone talking about the aliens in it?  Nope.  They were just cannon fodder.  They had nothing unique or awesome about them.  They actually were one of the weakest elements of the whole movie.

I watched Cowboys and Aliens the other day.  This is a movie that is based on the terror of these invaders.  Again, they never showed the aliens in the previews - just their ships flashing around and the mayhem they cause.  I was looking forward to see what they aliens looked like in their big reveal.  Again, I have kindly included a shot of these things.  What in the heck is that supposed to be?  Is that a fish?  A rock man?  They were ridiculous.  Their chest would also open up and these weird hands would come out.  It actually made no biological sense at all.  Was there a symbiotic relationship?  Were there two creatures inhabiting the same body?  What was the purpose of the second internal hands?  And do they have internal organs?  Plus there was no consistency in how to dispatch the aliens.  They seemed like they could take arrow or bullet hits, but if you hit their head (which seemed extra reinforced) they could die.  The whole thing was very bizarre.  I'm sure it didn't help the movie that the aliens - part of the title of the movie - were lame.

This all brings me to Super 8.  On the whole, this was a very good movie.  I loved it.  Well, I loved the first three-quarters of it.  Then it seemed to derail.  (Hmmmm.  Kind of sounds like another JJ Abrams project involving suspense and thrills.  cough LOST cough cough)  I thought the opening minute of the movie demonstrated Abrams' absolute brilliance at story telling.  The opening scene has the haunting score, penned by the always incredible Michael Giacchino.  There is a factory with a sign showing how many hundreds of days it has had without an accident.  A worker climbs a ladder and starts taking the numbers down, replacing them with just a 1.  Then it cuts to a boy sitting on a swing in the snow.  In just a moment, we already know this boy lost his parent.  Brilliant.  I loved it.

Abrams has a knack for opening a story - it is one of his hallmarks.  Consider the opening scene of Star Trek.  It was absolute mayhem.  And it was incredible.  I remember watching it with my friend, Greg, and he leaned over to me when the scene ended and the title screen came up.  "JJ Abrams is a freaking genius."  I agreed.  The pilot of Lost was as good as any television episode ever.  The same could be say about the pilot of Heroes, the pilot of Alcatraz, the opening of Mission Impossible III.  Abrams grabs your attention on a consistent basis.  The challenge is carrying that all the way through.

Super 8 started off great.  I was very interested in the story.  It was a great tale.  The train wreck that really catapulted the movie was intense and incredible.  I really liked the kids that were the center of the movie.  It was a very good movie and it was very enjoyable.  But...

Throughout the film, there is this monster hiding.  It escaped from the train and it now lurking in the city.  We see glimpses of things happening.  The monster is obviously formidable.  It can crush a car.  Somehow it affects the electricity in its area.  People scream a lot when it shows up.  It is supposedly terrifying.  They are building to the moment when we finally see it.  I am actually excited and nervous to see the thing.  I'm sure that Abrams and executive producer Steven Spielberg will come up with something worthy of the hype.

Ummmmm.  What exactly is that?  It has six legs, I think.  The first time we saw it on the kids' video it looked like a spider.  I thought maybe it was a giant spider.  A giant spider is what they are going with?  After Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, we are supposed to be freaked out by a giant spider?!?  Then I realized it wasn't a spider. It had that weird face too.  What is that?  It looks like a dozen other creatures we have seen.  Actually, his face reminds me of Megatron from Transformers.

There are tweaks and such, but I wasn't that impressed.  It was ugly.  And then we are supposed to actually have some sympathy for it.  It just wants to go home!  Of course, it has killed dozens of people already and caused tons of damage.  One character has already said that it has no remorse or pity for anything.  And we are supposed to be like, "Poor spider looking transformer thing.  It misses its home."  Sorry.  Not working for me.

The other problem is that the scenes where we actually see the alien up close are so dark that I could barely make out details.  There is no big scene where the thing emerges so we can see it in its full glory.  It is always in shadows or silhouettes.  That's really annoying.  So we either have to deal with scenes too dark to actually be scared of the non-spider or we have to deal with Abrams love affair with lens flares.  [Side Note - there is an entire online community devoted to ripping Abrams for his love of lens flare effects.  For those of you who don't know, lens flares are this trick where light hits the camera just right and you get a little starburst of light in a scene.  Awww.  However, they also can be added through any video or picture editing software.  I know how to do them in Photoshop.  They are actually one of the first "tricks" people learn.  Star Trek was infested with them.  Light bounced off all the chrome everywhere and there were flares galore.  I actually laughed at one scene in Super 8.  It was a gas station at night (of course).  I counted six lens flares in one shot.  In a gas station.  At night.  But I quibble.]

I know that this whole alien thing may seem like a small thing to focus on in a rather enjoyable movie - especially for a guy who gave Cowboys and Aliens a VERY generous evaluation.  But, I think it should be an understandable rule in Hollywood.  If you are going to make a movie or show that focuses on the presence of a terrifying alien, then the alien needs to live up to the hype.  If not, then the movie kind of crumbles.  I mean, that is the crux of the conflict, right?  Was the alien in Super 8 scary?  Well, sure, if I was a kid standing there in a cave and that sucker came up to me, I would soil myself.  Heck, if I was the sheriff and that thing came jumping out of the dark at me, I would soil myself.  But I'm not. I'm a grizzled moviegoer who is used to aliens from decades of invasion movies.  I need to see something memorable.   I don't even know what I was hoping for.  I just know that wasn't it, especially with the big names that were associated with the film.

In addition, to have the movie end the way it did just seemed weird.  It almost felt like I had wrongly identified the main story arc.  The whole time we are sitting there worried about how to defeat this alien.  At the same time, we are supposed to be suspicious of the military guys, knowing they are up to no good.  The alien is actually going out of its way to hunt people.  He isn't just offing the clowns who cross his path.  He is out and causing trouble.  He takes out sympathetic characters, too.  So there is no reason to feel bad for this guy.  I am wondering the whole time how the kids and their parents are going  to fight off the military AND defeat the spider thing.  Then we get a twist that this guy just wants to go home.  And then he goes home.  Aaaaaand scene.  What?  That doesn't make any sense.  Everyone just stares up as his cobbled together ship takes off.  Now, mind you, only a couple people know that he just wants to go home.  But what's left of the town is just going to stare up approvingly at the killer leaving, as their buildings are burning all around them.  Nonsense.

In short, the movie was three-quarters very good and one-quarter confusing as heck.  The alien was disappointing on many levels.  And the ending was bizarre.  But there were some very cool elements and moments.  Which brings me to the end of my week of movie reviews.  I hope all two of you enjoyed it.  Actually, it is funny to see friends of mine out of nowhere putting status updates like "I finally am watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" or "Let's see if Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is any good."  I would like to think I made a difference.  Whether or not that difference was worth making is a different story.

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