A Writer Reviews: Super 8

Let’s start by saying I liked Super 8.  It’s fantastic to see a movie come out that’s a purely original story, not an adaptation, not a sequel, but something new and different.  It’s also why I really loved Source Code.  It’s why I was disappointed that Darren Aronofsky was briefly tied to the next Wolverine movie.  And it’s why those three filmmakers, Aronosky, Duncan Jones, and JJ Abrams, are easily my three favorites right now.  Alright, yes, Abrams does the occasional adaptation like Star Trek, or adaptation-and-sequel like Mission: Impossible, but he also comes up with fantastic new ideas and is able to get them very successfully onto film.

Alright, this is turning into way too much of a love letter to Abrams.  That’s not what this is about.  This is about looking at Super 8 and seeing what lessons can be taken from it and applied to all types of writing.  And there are really two.

Lesson one: Horror is never enough.

Borders Books became infamous among my writing group when the decision was made to scrap the horror section and divide the books between fiction (if written by Stephen King) and science fiction (if written by anyone else).  The thing is, there’s a very small part of that decision that I can understand.  Horror should never be just horror.  Horror is a theme or a mood that should be applied to other genres of stories.  When Blake Snyder wrote Save the Cat, he looked to define genres that movies fall into, but he didn’t pick the standards like comedy, horror, or science fiction.  Instead, the genres that he went for were story arcs.  There’s Buddy Love, Golden Fleece, Dude with a Problem, Monster in the House.

And so we’ve got Super 8, which is a Coming of Age story.  It just so happens to be a coming of age story with a giant monster from outer space rampaging through the middle of it.  And that’s where the power of the story is.  Even while the main characters are trying to survive as the town around them is being destroyed by both the monster and the military trying to capture it, the elements of the story are ultimately about a boy trying to come to grips with being himself, falling in love, bonding with his father, and discovering the voice to stand up for himself.  All while trying to avoid getting stabbed in the chest by a rogue bit of lens flair.

So much lens flair.

Anyway, that’s not the point.  The point is that while this gets classified largely as horror (though I could make an entire other post, and may later today in Unleaded, about whether monster stories should all be horror), that’s not all the movie is.  Perhaps there was a day back with Godzilla was first destroying Tokyo where that was enough for the movie, but it’s not anymore.  The audience typically wants more.  They want the story of the people.  That’s why Cloverfield was so popular, and it explains the popularity of Super 8.

Lesson two: Ending everything.

I’m going to talk about the ending.  So you know what, I’m going to put a handy little break right after this paragraph.  Don’t keep reading after the break if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want spoilers.  If you linked directly in, or are reading on RSS, stop now.  Come back after you’ve seen it.  It’s not my fault if you get spoiled.  Though if you are about to leave and haven’t seen the movie yet, let me just say: hang out for the credits.

Rosebud was the kid’s sled which…wait, wrong movie.

So, you’ve got your two stories.  You’ve got your Coming of Age story that is serving as the A-plot of the movie, and you’ve got the Monster in the House (in this case the house being an entire 1979 suburb) B-plot.  As any good A and B plots should, they come together near the end when our hero has to save the girl he really like-likes from the den of the monster.  Then we get the heart-felt reunion with the fathers, who have put aside their own differences to launch a rescue mission.  In the end, both kids hug their parents, even though one has a history of being emotionally distant, and the other downright emotionally abusive.  And the kids hold hands to watch the B-plot wrap up in a very Spielbergian way.

And right there, as the lens flair is flashing (so much lens flair) and metal is flying through the air, with the not-actually-a-monster monster climbing up to his ship to fly away, that’s where the problem ultimately lies.  While the A-plot has a very satisfying conclusion, the B-plot really just sort of ends.  The alien bonds with the hero briefly, then summons his ship parts and leaves the planet.  There was something just ultimately unsatisfying about the whole thing.  While I didn’t want the alien to start speaking English and go into some sort of “I see now that we are not too different and that there is some good here on earth” speech, I do think there could have been a more satisfying way of wrapping up its story.

That’s the lesson there.  End all your plots, and end them all in a satisfying manner.  Like any writing advice, that’s obviously not going to apply to every story every time.  There are ultimately unsatisfying endings in life.  That’s often the problem with biopics.  If Patton was a fictional story, he would have gotten one last confrontation with Rommel.  But he didn’t in real life, so he doesn’t in the movie, because the real world isn’t full of narrativium like in the Discworld novels.  But your world can be.  And probably should be.  And unless there’s a good reason to leave a plot line dangling, or for it to wrap up in a sort of Deus Ex manner, try not to.  Give every plot line an ending, because some of your readers are going to invest in them, and want to see them all tie up.

And keeping readers happy is what keeps readers coming back.

In the end, I’d say Super 8 was a very good movie.  Not a great movie, but certainly a very good one.  Could it have been great with a slightly different ending, I’m not sure, but it might not have left me wanting just a little bit more right at the most critical part of the movie.

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