We watched Super 8 last night – the JJ Abrams alien movie that’s a 2-hour ode to the adventure movies of the 80s. Rag-tag band of boy-misfits? Check. One fat kid? Check. Mile-a-minute articulate banter from the mouths of babes? Check. One enormous personal problem mirrored by the world at large? Check.
For the most part, I really enjoyed this movie. It was set right at the beginning of the 80s (if I’ve put all the pop-culture references together right), and that in itself is interesting to unpack – why that era lends itself more to the boys-adventure movie than this one. But I’m not gonna go there, or we’ll be here all day.
There was a specific aspect of the storytelling I really loved, that I can’t wait to apply to my sci-fi adventure novel. You know, if I ever have time to write it.
Five boys and the town drunk’s daughter are making a zombie movie together on super 8 film. Their passion is taken very seriously – and their grown-up/childish conversation is wonderful. One boy’s mother was recently killed in a factory accident, and his grief weaves through the narrative, shaping his relationships and the choices his friends make.
And in the background, there’s an alien invasion.
The narrative is so firmly focussed on the kids and their movie that we only really see the alien story as it intersects with them. The first intersection is a massive, spectacular train crash in the middle of a scene they’re filming. So it’s not a small, background kind of thing. But it’s entirely filtered through the main event narrative, which is “Can we use any of that in the movie? Production value!” and “Is my camera completely wrecked now?”
The best part of this technique was that all that laborious army-invades-town-goes-to-war-with-alien stuff was done in a series of escalating background vignettes. First there are army trucks driving through town. Later, the army’s blocking off roads and searching houses – which is great production value, so the kids shoot a scene in front of it. Then the army are lighting fires and evacuating the town. Then they’re at full-out war.
Because the point of view of the narrative was so firmly with the kids this never felt farcical. It felt more like a true experience of war, than the absolute focus of a war movie. My German teacher in Berlin grew up in East Berlin. He would just shrug when we asked him about it, and say, “We were just living. That’s how our world was.”
It also means the characters are pulled naturally into the action as it pushes harder on their world. They’re each pulled in according to character, and by the time the kids are involved in full-out war tactics, the two narratives have pulled seamlessly together.
It was essentially an action movie, so the action plot was obviously important. However, doing it this way around meant it could also be a wonderful character movie, with a powerful, interesting narrative arc.
By the end of my sci-fi novel my protagonist has to find herself embroiled in civil war, whose implications are going to be felt throughout the universe. But I’ve never wanted the civil war itself to take up the bulk of the narrative, or to overshadow her personal quest to find out why her mother won’t wake up.
I had a sense that the civil war needed to boil in the background – that the reader needed enough markers that by the time it exploded it was surprising, shocking, exciting – but entirely believable. Even expected, in a sense.
Until watching this movie I hadn’t really seen an example of how I could do that. Now I think: Right. Make this a story about a girl trying to heal her mother, and let everything else happen in the background until it pushes so hard at her world she had to push back.