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JJ Abrams - Mystery Box


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I rarely have time to go to the movies. So it was a treat to grab a small group of amigos and head off the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.

I thought Super 8 was really cool. If you follow J.J. Abrams storytelling you'll notice he once again followed his 'Mystery Box' theory. He did a Ted lecture were he discusses a present he got as a child. It was a magicians 'Mystery Box'-- the interior contents were a MYSTERY. The anticipation of finding out what was inside drove him crazy.

What does this all mean?

Curiosity is one of the primary reasons people watch a story. The need to find out 'what happens next'.

Throughout Super 8 J.J. employs a few 'mystery boxes'.  If you haven't seen the film, this won't spoil it!

1) What does the alien look like?

Throughout the film we're teased with what the alien looks like.  We don't actually see it in detail until the last 10 minutes.  Prior to that we only see how it affects the environment (moving through bushes, etc).  Then we see glimpses of its appendages.  Finally we get the 'money shot'.

The master of the 'monster tease' is Spielberg.  Jaws doesn't show you the shark until the final 3/4 of the film, and Jurassic Park holds off with showing you the scary dinosaurs until midway through the film.  The entire ad campaign was teasing you about what the T-Rex looks like.

2) Why did the scientist crash the train?

There is an event at the end of act 1 that causes a train to derail.  We come to find out the character who did this is a teacher of the kids.  He spouts some vague dialogue that makes the audience wonder 'what is happening'?

This becomes a central mystery of the film as we, and the kids, try to figure things out.

3) What does the alien want?

We see the effects of its actions.  It takes things and is up to something.  What?

Those 3 'mysteries' are enough to engage us for 1 hour and 40+ minutes.

Overall the film presents a compelling character drama about a young boy whose mother has died.  We want to discover if his father will pull his head out of his ass and emotionally connect with his son.  This causes his son to befriend the girl he has a crush/connection with, much to his father's distress (don't want to spoil the story for you).  These character relationships aren't a 'mystery box' per se, but they do compel us to find out the resolution to these matters.

Overall I thought the movie was pretty solid.  It tried really hard to be a love letter to early Spielberg films and came really close.  The 3 primary things I found missing that would have made me fully think that Spielberg directed it would have been:

1) Spielberg's master shots

The guy is a genius at blocking.  He studied David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago) and actually outdid him.

He is able to position his camera and actors in such a way that he doesn't need to shoot coverage.  If you're not sure what this mean let me explain.  On a TV show, for example, the director would shoot a medium, a close up, and a long shot, or master.  Spielberg typically shoots a complex master shot and then only shoots insert shots for important story elements (example, he'd cut to an insert of a watch if the audience needs to see the time).

2) John Williams & Spielberg's musical senses

Spielberg movies sound like Spielberg movies because John Williams is the best composer ever.

Williams can spot music and find the perfect points to layer themes in.  Spielberg is also very adept at designing his filmmaking with music in mind.  The music in his films is iconic and sweeping, and sells the emotions of the characters and seals the stories tone.

I'd like to put all the credit on Williams but Poltergeist (Unofficially directed by Spielberg) sounds just like a Williams score (in terms of the music spotting).  The music was done by Jerry Goldsmith who Spielberg personally directed in the post production phase.  The score has all the signatures of a Spielberg movie proving that Steven knows his music.

Therefore the credit to his great film scores has to be shared between him and Williams.

3) Humor

Super 8 fell flat in the humor department.

Spielberg knows how to use humor to lighten the mood and how (at least after the 1941 disaster) to let the joke breath.

All the punchlines in Super 8 were trimmed to the bone by the editor.  Typically the character will say a line and then you let the film linger for a second so the audience can process it.  Super 8 would present a humorous moment and then immediately cut away or have action in the frame.  For this reason the audience I saw it with rarely laughed, even though I know those were intended to be funny moments.  Ironically the ending film (the ones the kids were shooting) was very funny-- due to the slow pace of the editing.

So there you go!

A quick dissection of Super 8.  Do check it out, as it was one of the better films I saw in 2011!

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