When intrigue isn’t intriguing, and nostaligia doesn’t feel particularly nostalgic…

I haven't seen this yet...and I'm not in any great hurry.

So I was asked last night if I wanted to go see the new movie Super 8 today…and my answer, surprising as it may seem to someone who knows me and knows what I like…was “nah.”  It’s not that I don’t want to see it – I actually do, and I’m sure when I do see it I’ll at least like it, and for all I know I might even love it.  But with all of the movies that have come out the past few weeks and due to come out during the next few, I’m just not excited enough to go out and see it right away.  Now there are a few minor reasons that contribute to my comparative lethargy: J.J. Abrams has never blown my mind as much as he has others, and though I love movies I have no desire to live in a theater like I have been lately.   But the fairly glowing reviews would normally be enough to offset that hesitancy…there had to be more.

Really, the reason for me is actually kind of simple:  I really just don’t get this movie’s marketing.  And let’s be honest, marketing is as important as anything when it comes to why we see a movie.  A bad trailer can kill excitement for a movie that’s actually really good, and a good trailer can make us excited to see absolute junk.  So my relative lack of excitement about Super 8 made me think about what can personally drive someone to want to see a movie, and the nexus that exists between expectation and desire in film marketing.

The marketing (which, to specify, I see as including actual movie marketing and overall publicity – I haven’t watched anything viral or sought out spoilers) for Super 8 seems to want to work on two levels, as intrigue and as nostalgia.   I’m going to start with the intrigue.  What is Super 8 about?  I honestly have no idea.  I have suspicions, but very little in actual knowledge…and I assume that’s precisely how the marketers want me to feel.   Now, I get that, and part of me understands why that happens and part of me approves of it.  Movies can often be too predictable…on the one hand, it’s why we find them to be be entertaining, because in the end, that’s part of the comfort of going to movies.  For a moment, they make us feel okay; they give us a false sense that no matter how out of control things get, most everything will turn out all right in the end (provided another sequel isn’t coming along in the next 12-18 months).  But on the other, it obviously can make things overly repetitive and over time, fairly bland and boring.   So, certainly, part of me is happy when a movie wants to deny people’s expectations too much, and leave us with a large question mark lingering over us that prevents us from describing a movie in 25 words or less.

But this time?  I’m not really intrigued, and it makes me curious to see how well Super 8 will do in its opening weekend.  I’m suspecting fairly well, and at $45 million or so, even with marketing costs, this film doesn’t likely have to set major records to be insanely profitable.  But among an extremely crowded summer marketplace and in an economy where entertainment is more budgeted than ever before, I question the wisdom of denying people the comfort of expectations.  I know, for me personally, lacking that frame of reference makes me less intrigued to actually see it – if I’m going to spend money on something these days (especially when I’m spending money on so many other movies at this time of year), I prefer it not to be on an enigma, and I doubt I’m alone.  And even if the film manages to deliver on the intrigue that it creates, in the modern internet era, where one could probably type two words into google and find out what the film is actually about (which I won’t be doing, but the point remains), is that going to sustain a film like this?   If I’m not encouraged to see it this weekend, sadly, I’ll probably already have learned by the time I get around to it, which in and of itself won’t discourage me, but might discourage others.

Then there’s the issue of nostalgia, which the publicity surrounding the film has especially endorsed, most clearly in evoking the early work of Steven Spielberg (the film’s advertised producer and a central figure, along with Abrams, in its marketing).  From what I’ve seen, this is certainly what has struck the loudest chord I know with people who want to see the movie.   Now again, personally, I don’t get it.   Now don’t misunderstand me…I’m not a Spielberg hater that some others are these days are (though only a complete fanboy wouldn’t admit his work hasn’t fallen off in recent years), and as a movie buff who grew up in the eighties and into the nineties, Spielberg was a huge part of my childhood.  The first movie I ever saw in a theater was a Spielberg movie (“saw” being relative to the fact I spent half the movie hiding from the little alien who thought was going to eat me). When I see the trailers for Super 8, I can pick out the obvious references to ET, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind fairly easily.  But, in the end…so what?

Honestly, Spielberg’s work, with obvious exceptions of films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Raiders of the Ark, just feels so archaic these days…like relics of a bygone era we really just can’t go back to, nor should we want to. They evoke a more naive period in history, at least for me.  And at the risk of sounding almost snobbish (sorry…), Spielberg movies are just something we eventually outgrow and only rarely look back, and when we do, it’s rarely with the sense of wonderment we had as children during that era.  Instead, we see the obvious schmaltz and ceaseless optimism, and feel the manipulation going on.  And that leads back to the idea of intrigue…knowing what to expect from a Spielberg movie, or, in this case, a postmodern recreation of one, you kind of ultimately know where it’s going to go.  I remember years ago, when War of the Worlds was released in 2005,  the director made all sorts of comments about how his attitude changed  in the wake of September 11. But as the movie ended, it was just the same ludicrously upbeat ending that has undermined much of his work.  So something tells me that whatever Super 8 is about, it’s going to have that same Spielbergian happy ending.

And you know, it will probably be fine.  I’m fairly certain that it will be a good movie, given all the impressions.  But in the end, the promise of quality isn’t always as important as the promise of something more.  Or at least something else.

2 thoughts on “When intrigue isn’t intriguing, and nostaligia doesn’t feel particularly nostalgic…

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  1. Your idea about expectations and marketing intrigues me. More and more I define a “good” popcorn movie as one that hits my expectations — this is how I’ve found peace with genuinely liking all sorts of things I wouldn’t normally like (THE PROPOSAL, and THE PERFECT GETAWAY to name a few). I knew exactly what I was getting with these movies and I knew exactly what they were trying to be, and in relation to other movies that tried similar things, I can call them a success.

    So that’s what makes your point about Super 8 interesting. You’re right, the only things I could really expect going in were related to the filmmakers — I knew it was a J.J. movie and I knew it was a Speilberg movie. Coming out of it, while I actually enjoyed the movie, and enjoyed specific parts immensely, there was a feeling of overall uncertainty with what I had seen, and maybe because all I had to compare my expectations to were “I hope this movie is great cause both these guys have made pretty awesome movies in the past!”

    As for Speilberg — couldn’t agree more about the ridiculous ending to WAR OF THE WORLDS. But I do think the optimism of SUPER 8 was part of the appeal. It’s not rare to find light-hearted fare (I mean, THOR didn’t exactly have any mega-downers anywhere), but that optimism of possibility and wonderment does have a place and for some reason, Speilberg is the one guy that it’s a go-to for it.

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