Saturday, June 18, 2011

Super 8 and Storytelling

I watched the movie Super 8 last night. I enjoyed it, although I thought that it had the makings within it of a much better movie. Super 8 felt like the Goonies mixed with a modern, slightly scarier, ET. I don't want to give the wrong impression; the plots weren't the same, just the feelings. A group of ragtag kids run around in an adult world while scary government agents do X-Files stuff in a small town.

Super 8 is trying to be more realistic than the movies that inspired it, the movies that producer Steven Spielberg made back in the 1980s. The result is more realistic but less memorable characters. The Goonies were almost archetypes. They even had evocative nicknames that reminded the viewer of their personalities: Chunk, Mouth, Data, even Sloth. The characters of Super 8 have normal names. They seem (with the exception of the improbably brave and clever protagonist) like kids you might know. More real? Yes, but less memorable. At the same time, the fantastic elements of the story seem kind of tacked on. You remember how in Stephen King's It, Part 1 was really cool and nostalgic, mostly about the kids? Part one made you feel like one of those kids, It played off of the feelings and emotions we can all relate to having as children, the fear of the dark we all have inside. Part 2, with the grownups, had a big stupid giant spider and was far less satisfying. If you mixed the nostalgia of Part 1 with the stupid giant spider of Part 2, you'd have Super 8. It's a good movie, a solid B, but it could have been an A+.

What was awesome about Super 8 was the retro quality of its storytelling. I'm not talking about the 1970s setting or even the throwback to older Spielberg movies. I'm talking about the pacing and storytelling style of the movie. With four young kids in the house, I've seen a lot of kids shows, for better or for worse. Modern childrens' movies are fast paced with a lot of whiz bang effects. The best of the them have dialogue and jokes aimed at the parents, too, delivered quickly and smoothly right over the heads of the kids.

Super 8 is different. It focuses on the emotions of the story and its characters. It spends time establishing the characters, their histories, and their relationships to one another. It's not in a hurry to do so. Once it gets you there, the movie blows up a train in spectacular fashion. Then, with the kids' world turned upside down, the movie slows down again. The pacing is deliberate. This is a summer movie, to be sure, with explosions and monsters, but it's a summer movie from a different time. Well, parts of it are, anyway. It's wonderful to see a movie that treats its audience, children they may be, as if they're intelligent and capable of becoming emotionally attached to a story. Whether they are or not I'm not sure, but it was deeply refreshing to see a movie paced like this. May it spread to other movies and affect them.

I feel obligated to conclude with a gaming connection. Games, like other forms of entertainment, are products of their times. All too often, in the rush to adapt the zeitgeist of the day, I think that we forget the good parts of the things that came before. The music of today is very different from the music of 30 years ago. Does that mean that all of the music back then sucked and that the millions of people producing and enjoying it were wrong? Obviously not.

The same holds true for roleplaying games. The idea that we've somehow evolved or advanced beyond the rules elements of OD&D or 1E or whatever is absurd. Granted, these games were played over a period of several years, and we have the advantage of seeing how they worked on a bigger stage over a longer timeline. So, it's fair to say that you prefer system X or technique Y. But to dismiss old games simply because they're old, as if games could expire like cartons of milk? That's really, really foolish.

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