man of steel: i heart krypton (probably more than i heart superman)

In all probability, last year’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, was not designed to make me want to watch an entire movie about Krypton. But that’s what it did, maybe more than it did anything else.

That probably says more about how totally effective the early scenes of Krypton were more than it means anything about how much I liked the rest of the film (which was fine or something). Man of Steel’s Krypton is a vividly foreign place that clearly establishes its own peculiar aesthetic, one that is a lot more than a mere extrapolation from present trends in American design. Just as it should, the planet feels remote from anything we know in modern America.

First, as we see the birth of Superman (the first Kryptonian born the old fashioned way for quite some time, it seems), there’s a floating monitor-type thing that uses a bunch of pebbly metal beads to display information, like a picture of the Super-fetus. Like a lot of Kryptonian tech, it’s distinctly beyond anything humanity could build right now, but more importantly, it doesn’t look like anything Apple would make any time in the next century, either. The shapes of their buildings, tools and costumes, as well as the green-brown color palette of Krypton, build up a cultural context unlike anything you or I ever normally see – which makes perfect sense.

14-06-30 Man of Steel - 1a super-fetus

A lot of that particular style is in the intermingling of the highly technological with the organic and natural. After Superman is delivered, we cut out of the Super-obstetrics ward to see an establishing shot of Krypton. Unlike the many depictions of seamless cityscapes you’ve seen in movies about the future, the architecture of Krypton seems largely overrun by untamed flora and fauna.

14-06-30 Man of Steel - 1 fat beast

A few minutes later, when Jor-El breaks into the pool where Kryptonians are hatched, we see a skull that (apparently) contains all of the Kryptonians’ genetic code. It’s held in suspension by what look like the tentacles of a sea creature but which I’m pretty sure are supposed to be the inventions of the Kryptonians:

14-06-30 Man of Steel - 12 tenticle technology

On Krypton, both implicitly and explicitly, technology and biology are interwoven so completely that they are no longer distinguishable.

Hell, even their lasers have a fuzzy unscientific look to them. The beams are a light bluish and look like a smoky concentration of an apparition more than the straight red laser blasts of yore:

14-06-30 Man of Steel - 3 messy laser closer

Also notice the intricate costume of the woman, a Kryptonian offical of some import. Her headdress and outfit boast a lot of fine detail. These are not the sleek PJs of Star Trek, with their clean lines and primary colors: This culture has its own highly specific material culture, with baroque designs that remind me more of the artifacts I see in a history museum than anything from TV. It is, in short, very convincingly alien, and with these scant details I can begin to imagine a whole world off screen that I want to know more about.

Unfortunately for me, it’s not a culture we get to see much of. For Superman to exist, Krypton needs to get blown up, whether I want to stay there or not. Too bad, because I really, really want to.

***

There’s a prosaic little detail of the movie, though, that clashes with the expansive world that director Zack Snyder manages to evoke for us in the short time the film spends on Krypton. That detail is the whip zoom.

It starts when Jor-El climbs on the back of his flying bug-dog pet, who serves as his Pegasus. We watch as he zips around an apocalyptic Krypton, making his way to the aquatic baby factory. As the camera follows Jor-El in flight, there are several unmistakable whip zooms, an effect where the camera zooms in or out so fast that it’s slightly jarring and a bit hard to follow. It begins just after Jor-El takes off.

Pre-zoom:

14-06-30 Man of Steel - 7 pre-zoom

Post-zoom:

14-06-30 Man of Steel - 8 post-zoom

There’s no cut there. The first and second images are part of the same shot, with the camera zooming in hard to get from one to the other.

(Is this actually called a “whip zoom”? I think it should be, but a little googling hasn’t cleared up whether what I’m talking about ought to be labeled a “whip zoom” or a “crash zoom” or something else entirely. I think “whip zoom” makes the most sense because it seems like the logical extension of the better-established term “whip pan,” which gets the same effect just by turning the camera so fast the image blurs.)

There are several more whip zooms in and out. Maybe the best example is one where we start on the flying dog…

14-06-30 Man of Steel - 9 pre-zoom

…only to whip zoom in…
14-06-30 Man of Steel - 10 post-zoom

…and whip zoom in even closer than before:
14-06-30 Man of Steel - 11 even zoomier

I’ll try to describe why I think this trick is worth attention. I’m imagining a cameraman at an air show. He has his camera pointed in the general direction of the plane (or, in the case of this movie, a Kryptonian dragon mutt), but the plane looks like a speck in an enormous sky, so he quickly zooms in to get a better shot of the action. He’s maybe not very skilled and doesn’t know how to do this smoothly, so the image becomes a bit hard to follow as he zooms in too quickly on his subject; it’s urgent and sloppy all at the same time, conveying a sense of immediacy, a kind of analogue for the much-abused shaky cam.

There is also at least one lens flare, another artifact of real camera use (and one that turned some people off of J.J. Abrams’ look for Star Trek):

14-06-30 Man of Steel - 5 huge lens flare

The whip zooms and the lens flare subtly suggest — to me at any rate — the idiosyncrasies of real video production as it is practiced on Earth. Inasmuch as they do, they complicate how we envision this alien world, since they show us the unfamiliar but with the familiar marks of our terrestrial filmmaking. The end result is kind of the way I imagine it would be if you watched a found-footage movie set in the universe of Star Wars, a prospect that sounds both intriguing and possibly quite unsatisfying.

I don’t think I care much about Superman himself, but at least the part of his movie set on Krypton was distinctive enough for me to notice all that.

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