Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Super 8: How a Far-Out Premise Stays Rooted in Reality

by Jennifer AlLee

When this summer rolled around, there were two movies I was really looking forward to. One of them is Cowboys and Aliens. The title grabbed me first. Then, when I found out it stars James Bond and Indiana Jones (Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, respectively), I was sold. But it doesn’t come out until early August, so I’ll have to wait.

The other movie is Super 8. It came out in June and I rushed to the theater to see it. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams (of LOST and Alias fame), I expected it to be good. Add Steven Spielberg as a producer, and I expected it to be great. I was not disappointed.

Steven Spielberg & J.J. Abrams

Being a writer, I can’t watch a movie or TV show without thinking about the story structure, plot devices, emotional threads, and dialogue. (Thankfully, my family puts up with me pointing these things out. My son and I have even made a game out of finding plot holes and inconsistencies.) Naturally, I looked for these things in Super 8.

I don’t want to spoil any surprises in case you haven’t seen it, but the basic plot of the movie is that over summer break, a group of middle-school students are making a short zombie movie for a film contest. While they are out shooting scenes by the train tracks, they catch an accident, and then weird things start happening in town.

The movie is exciting. It has moments that make you gasp and jump in your seat. And, with Abrams and Spielberg, you can pretty much expect to find an alien in it. It’s a great summer flick. But it also worked on a deeper, emotional level.

How? How does a movie like that suck you in and make you care about all the characters? By starting with something normal. Something heartbreaking. The very first scene is of a steel plant, and the foreman is changing the sign that says how many days they’ve gone without an accident. Now it says “0”. The next scene is of a family gathered together after a funeral, the son sitting sad and alone outside. And we know exactly where we are.

Super 8 stars: Elle Fanning,
Riley Griffiths, & Joel Courtney
 That’s what does it. The normal family enduring a tragic event, grounds the story in reality. From there on, the relationships between the kids and each other, the kids and their parents, all ring true. When people start disappearing in town and the military rides in like they’re invading the place, we buy it. And we care. Because we started the movie by sharing a common emotional experience, and now we know these people.

It’s a master-stroke of great scriptwriting. And it works the same way in novels. When we ground our stories in reality and share emotions that anyone can relate to, we can then take the reader just about anywhere. Whether it’s back through history, smack dab in the middle of modern times, or far into the future, the reader will go on the journey if the emotions are honest and true. It’s something I’m holding onto as I plan out future projects.

How about you? Is there a movie, book, or TV show that you’ll willingly suspend belief for because the characters and their emotions are so real? Or perhaps something with a good plot, but it was ruined for you because nobody acted the way a real person would?

And as a side question… what was your favorite movie this summer?

 JENNIFER ALLEE believes the most important thing a woman can do is find her identity in God – a theme that carries throughout her novels. A professional writer for over twenty years, she's done extensive freelance work for Concordia Publishing House, including skits, Bible activity pages, and over 100 contributions to their popular My Devotions series. Her first novel, The Love of His Brother, was released by Five Star Publishers in November 2007. Her latest novel, The Pastor’s Wife, was released by Abingdon Press in February 2010. Her upcoming novel, The Mother Road, will be released by Abingdon Press in April 2012. She's a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Romance Writers of America, Christian Authors Network, and the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance. - Jennifer's website - A safe haven for women living on the front lines of ministry.


  1. Good question. I think I have to start 1) watching movies that aren't based on a 19th century novel, duh, and 2) start thinking about what I have seen that will answer your question. That will take me all day so I'll check in later.

    I will say that I thought Super 8 was something I wouldn't be interested in (like a movie for the twenty-something set?) so I'm glad you set me straight.

  2. I've been watching less and less movies, and I've decided the reason is I like television series where I get to spend more time with the characters and grow attached to them.

    That being said, my favorite movies are romantic comedies because they make me laugh in feel good. A favorite this summer was "Just Go With It."

    I will pretty much always suspend my disbelief for the zany humor of guys like Adam Sandler and Jack Black.

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  4. The one TV show that drew me in, even though you had to swallow a lot in the suspension-of-disbelief department, was Monk. It was an odd blend of unrealistic--sometimes slapstick--comedy, outrageously complex murders, and a main character so compelling I found myself growing obsessed right along with him.

  5. Thanks for the info on Super 8, Jen. I hadn't heard of that one.

    We're always terribly behind the times because we wait to see the blockbusters when they come out in the 'cheap seat' theatres. My most 2 recent movies viewed were True Grit and The King's Speech. The latter was exceptional and I loved seeing the Queen as a child.

    Cowboys and Aliens caught my eye on the first commercial. And yesterday when JJ and I left Regina to begin our road trip west, I finally broke down and bought one of those refillable 'gulp' cups - because it has a photo from the C&A movie. I don't know who the characters are, but it's got a rugged hero and a gun-totin' woman. Good enough for me to keep. LOL

    JJ and I will leave Maple Creek this morning and head down to Fort Walsh fo the North West Mounted Police re-enactments. The only thing is ... it's raining.
    Maybe I'll get some different-from-the-norm photos, though so that will be great.

    Anita Mae.

  6. I think JJ Abrams also did the latest Star Trek movie which was so fabulous, I can't wait for the next one. I will suspend my belief for any Star Trek movie (my son's name is Kirk, after all), Quantum Leap, and as Barb already mentioned - Monk.

    Did anyone see Miss Potter? I had a real issue with the way her drawings would all the sudden come to life. It almost made her seem a little insane. That spoiled the movie for me. I know they were trying to slow how real the characters were to her, but they took it too far.

    Though I enjoyed Pirates 4, I did have a little trouble with the motivation this time around, which kind of pulled me a little bit out of it.

  7. I have seen distressingly few movies this summer. But I am looking forward to Cowboys vs Aliens too. It sounds so ridiculous, but in a fun kind of way. I also want to see Captain America which comes out next week. Woo Hoo!

  8. I also wait until a movie is on Netflix before I see it. I don't see many new releases because I don't often see storylines that interest me. I do like the "based on a 19th century novel" ones. :D

    "The King's Speech" was marvelous. How does Colin Firth get so much out of his usually very understated performances?

    For romantic comedy, I tend to like the classics of the 1930s. They usually had to write well then, because they couldn't fall back on just using bad language.

  9. Suzie, I saw Miss Potter. I thought it was rather sad, really (despite her success).

    Did you stay until the very, VERY end of the credits in Pirates 4? For anyone who hasn't seen it yet, you must stay until the end of the credits. We were the only ones in the theater who did, and I guess you could say we had the last laugh. There's a short, and enormously funny epilogue, after the credits. (Our son with Down Syndrome always wants to stay until the end of the credits. It's a little thing, so we usually humor him.)

    Oldest son and husbands want to see Harry Potter, of course. I haven't seen any of the previous ones, so it will be a father-son outing.

  10. Um, amending my lost comment. The plural "husbands" is a typo. In case anyone is wondering, I only have one.

  11. Thanks for clearing that up. ;)

    Anyway, if I go to the theater, I ALWAYS stay for the end of the credits. There is frequently a nice little surprise awaiting those who do.

  12. CJ, I agree, Miss Potter was a very sad movie. I loved it, except the element I mentioned above. I'm sure more about her will show up at the Inkwell in the near future. ;)

    We didn't stay for the credits of Pirates 4 - we were anxious to get to Hollywood Studios and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. But I did hear about the added clip, so I'll watch for it the next time I watch the movie to see if I can pinpoint Captain Jack's motivation.

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  14. I stay through the credits too and I never see anyone else do it--and here we are gathering under the Inkies Logo... how funny.

    Jen, I haven't come up with any movies to fit your question. I believed everything that was going on in EVER AFTER.

    You know I read the Outlander series and I swallowed the whole Loch Ness Monster bit without question because, well, darn... it's already a time travel story, so why not? (maybe it was harder to believe that a man could say such wonderful things to his wife like Jamie says to Claire...)

    Has anyone watched Robin Hood, the BBC series? Smack full of anachronisms which is part of its charms. (okay. Sure, I only watched it because of Richard Armitage) All those arrows and knives and not a drop of blood either.

  15. Ack, I didn't stay for the end of Pirates 4! I know to stay to the bitter end of Marvel movies, but I didn't get any forewarning about Pirates. Now I'm going insane with longing to know what happened! Can anyone email me privately to spill the beans?

    I really want to see Super 8, Jen. It sounds awesome. Got good reviews, too.

    Of course, we're gearing up for Harry Potter around here. Laugh away, but I'm sure I'll cry. There's a death (I'll say no more) that brings me to tears every time. (Yeah, I've read it a few times...)

    Save me a seat at Captain America, Lisa!

    Ok, I'm geeking out here, but did anyone see Thor, and happen to note Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) with his bow and arrow? I'm looking forward to The Avengers, whenever that comes out.

  16. I haven't seen any Harry Potter's yet. But when Kirk and I were in FL we saw part of the first one on the bus from Universal Studios. I was intrigued, so have now recorded all but the last one. I'm waiting for a break in school so I can watch them. Then I'll rent the last one and go see the new one. Probably all in one extremely lazy weekend.

  17. I thought Thor looked too much for the big screen--for me. Maybe I've never recovered from Braveheart and Last of the Mohicans on the big screen. I like sharp things in the smaller version.

    Here's my list of movies at the theatre in the last three or four years: Mamma Mia, nights in Rodanthe, the Young Victoria, Bright Star, the Kings Speech and Jane Eyre.

    I think I finally can answer your question Jen. I completely believed all those people could spontaneously break into song while on that gorgeous Greek Island

  18. Deb, I watched the BBC Robin Hood.

    My biggest complaint (and a major reason I think the series didn't last) is that it always felt disjointed to me. Sometimes it was spoof, and sometimes it was serious. Either one would have worked, but they didn't work together for me.

    That, and the characters sometimes felt a little unever -- particularly the Armitage character. But at least he was redeemed in the end.

    And hey -- Richard Armitage + black leather. 'Nuff said.

  19. Good grief, I've been away all day and look at the fun you've had without me!

    Dina, I love Jack Black. Did you see Gulliver's Travels? Tons of belief suspension there, but a fun movie.

    Anita, I knew you'd be intriqued by C&A! I saw True Grit in the theater with my husband and loved it. Finally saw The King's Speech on DVD. Fascinating movie. Enjoy that big gulp, and have a safe trip!

  20. Barb, you're so right about Monk. It required us to suspend belief left and right, but the characters were so endearing, it was no problem.

    CJ, my son and I have learned to sit through the credits at Pirate movies! Although I still think #1 was the best, #4 redeemed the series, IMO.

    Susie, I loved Miss Potter, but mostly because of Ewan McGregor. SIGH. You know what's funny about the marketing for that? On all the posters and on the DVD case, Ewan is clean shaven. But in the movie, he's got a big, bushy walrus mustache the whole time. I thought that was pretty funny. He IS much more attractive without it :+}

    1. That would be why the posters have his face naked :-) The 'tache, however, is authentic to the period for a man his age and class.

    2. That would be why they show him as clean-shaven on the posters.

  21. I considered buying Robin Hood but watched it on Netflix instead. Actually only the first season. Glad I didn't buy it. Entertaining and disjointed for sure!

    Hey Jen, nice you could make it :)

  22. CJ, I'm still laughing about your "husbands"...

  23. Lisa, why don't you and I live closer so we could go to movies together? Ooo, wouldn't it be fun to get all the Inkies together for a movie day? We'd shut down the theater!

  24. Deb, I agree about Mama Mia! It was so ridiculous, but in a fun, campy way. And all the actors so totally committed to what they were doing... who am I to disagree? But I will say, I will be perfectly happy if I never hear Pierce Brosnan sing again. Colin Firth, on the other hand, had a nice, folky-type voice. Would have liked to hear him sing more.

  25. Susie, my son lost interest in Harry Potter two movies ago. So I'll be attending the final film by myself. Having not read any of the books (I know... GASP!) I'm anxious to see how it all ends.

  26. Don't feel bad, Jen, I haven't read any of them either. I've watched most of the movies and saw the most recent one at the theater.

    As for movies for which I will suspend belief... I have to admit, the Twilight movies grabbed me from the get-go. And James Bond. Any James Bond.

  27. I'm with you on James Bond. Not so much on Twilight. I just can't get into those. Only saw the first one with my sisters, and they about glared lasers through me when I started pointing out the plot holes. And I always want to slap Kristen Stewart and yell, "Wake up, girl!" She looks so sleepy.

  28. "Richard Armitage + black leather. 'Nuff said."

    Okay, totally agree. (I can't imagine him as a dwarf. It should be a crime to do anything to those gorgeous, long legs!)

    But, even with RA, I couldn't stand much of that Robin Hood series. Too silly at times, too politically correct, to untrue to the period.

    I'm glad to hear the RA character was redeemed at the end. Maybe I'll give it another try. :)

  29. Okay, girls, clearly I've missed something of great importance. First, there's a Robin Hood series? Where? What channel? And who is Richard Armitage? Should I google him?

  30. Watch this series:

    You will be forever smitten. :)


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