Super 8

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/09/11 16:09:14

"The It Stays In The Picture"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

As strange as it may seem in a world where virtually ever film, save for those directed by Terrence Malick, arrives in theaters with virtually all of its plot points and secrets uncovered thanks to the explosion in entertainment news coverage, spoiler-heavy websites and coming attractions previews that seem hell-bent on cramming as many plot twists, explosions and joke punchlines into two minutes as they can, there used to be a time when films would be released without having all their key moments exposed. Amazingly, when people lined up to see films like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Alien," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "E.T.," "Gremlins" and "Ghostbusters," they only had a vague idea of what their basic stories were and little else--they didn't know what the Alien or E.T. looked like, they didn't know how nasty the gremlins would get once they multiplied and dined after midnight and they had not a hint that Manhattan was in danger of being crushed by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and as a result, they all had a far more profound impact on viewers than they might have if everyone went in knowing exactly what to expect. "Super 8," the super-secret collaboration between writer-director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg is a throwback to that bygone era in that it has somehow managed to make it up to its release date with most of its secrets and specifics still under wraps. As a result, there are plenty of surprises in store in this film but the biggest one by far is that instead of being the action-heavy monster movie suggested by the trailers, "Super 8" is actually a delightful, touching and engrossing coming-of-age story that just happens to have a rampaging monster in it as well. (Although I don't plan on revealing much more about the plot than what can be gleaned from the trailers and wouldn't dream of spoiling any of the surprises, those of you who want to go into the film completely fresh should check out now. Then again, if that is the case, why the hell are you even reading this in the first place?)

"Super 8" is set in a small Ohio town circa 1979 and centers on Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a young boy who, as the story opens, is still reeling from the accidental death of his beloved mother in a tragic accident at the local steel mill and living with his dad (Kyle Chandler), a local deputy who is a good man at heart but equally unable to deal with the loss of his wife or how to raise his son alone--his most brilliant idea is to suggest sending Joe away for several weeks to baseball camp so as to avoid dealing with things for a little while longer. Joe doesn't want to leave because he has been helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) put together a Super-8 zombie movie to enter into a local film festival along with fellow friends Cary (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach Mills) and Martin (Gabriel Basso). He especially doesn't want to leave once he discovers that Charles has added another role to his script and convinced the lovely Alice (Elle Fanning), a schoolmate who stands about a head taller than the others both physically and emotionally, to take on the role. Although cast by Charles solely as a way for him to get closer to her, she turns out to have genuine talent and despite the fact that her drunken father (Ron Eldard) was indirectly responsible for his mother's death, Joe develops a serious crush on her and to his amazement, it seems as though she may feel the same way towards him.

One night, the kids sneak out of their homes to shoot a scene at a rarely used train station. As they are preparing to shoot, a train begins to approach and Charles, thrilled at the prospect of actual production value, starts shooting as it passes by. A little further up the track, however, a pickup truck deliberately drives onto the tracks towards the train and causes a massive derailment and wreck that makes the train crash in "The Fugitive" look like a minor fender-bender by comparison. Barely escaping with their lives, the kids flee for home and promise never to say anything about what they saw but by the next morning, army troops led by the hard-nosed Nelec (Noah Emmerich) arrive to clean up the site and assure everyone that it was just a minor accident and that nothing is wrong. Before long, a strange series of events begins to overtake the town--all the local dogs have run away, the engines from all the cars in the local car lots have disappeared and several people, including the sheriff, have gone missing--and the military begins to crack down further on the town while Joe's dad, now in charge, tries to get some answers to his ever-growing list of questions. At first, the kids kind of ignore what is going on around them, even continuing on with shooting the film and using the wreckage and military presence as additional production value, but they eventually discover that something of an alien nature was on the train that escaped during the wreck and that the government will go to any lengths to contain it and anyone with any knowledge about it.

J.J. Abrams has noted that he made "Super 8" as a tribute to the fantasy films that Steven Spielberg either directed or produced during the 1980's in which ordinary suburban kids were placed in extraordinary situations involving treasure maps, things from another world and creatures with strict regulations regarding diet and exposure to the sun. Indeed, viewers of a certain age watching this film will no doubt have Proustian flashbacks to long-ago misspent Saturday afternoons at the local multiplex watching stuff like "E.T." and "The Goonies." The thing about those movies is that even though they were all produced under Spielberg's watchful eye, the best of them were those done by directors who possessed enough of a distinctive cinematic style to keep their films from simply coming across as Spielberg clones--people like Robert Zemeckis or Joe Dante, whose lovely and underrated "Explorers" feels like more of an influence on the tone of "Super 8" than the likes of the oft-mentioned "The Goonies." The trouble here is that while Abrams has definitely etched out his own territory on the small screen thanks to such dizzyingly complex shows as "Alias," "Lost" and "Fringe," he has yet to develop a similar personal signature with his big-screen directorial efforts, which have included "Mission: Impossible 3" and the "Star Trek" reboot, and as a result, he spends more time paying tribute to Spielberg's oeuvre than in striking out on his own--right down to having composer Michael Giacchino and cinematographer Larry Fong slavishly emulating the scoring and lens-flare heavy cinematography of Spielberg collaborators John Williams and Allan Daviau--and the movie occasionally suffers as a result because of the lack of such an individual stamp. For example, in "Gremlins," there was that sequence in which the hero brought one of the creatures to his old science teacher, played by African-American actor Glynn Turman, and he becomes the movie's first victim. Since that character was brought in out of nowhere and never referred to again in any detail, the scene felt like genre expert Joe Dante's sly dig at the age-old horror movie custom in which the black character almost always gets killed off first. Here, Turman once again turns up as a science teacher who is one of the only two African-Americans on display in the entire film and he once again becomes the first casualty but instead of containing any possible satiric intent, Abrams seems to have cast him simply as an homage to "Gremlins" and nothing more. Of course, stuff like this isn't enough to torpedo a film--especially considering that a huge chunk of the target audience won't even notice it or care--and Abrams does it better than most of the other pretenders to Spielberg's throne but while watching the film, I couldn't help but wonder what Abrams might have accomplished if he had tried a little harder to make his own mark rather than slavishly follow in the footsteps of his forerunners.

That said, as cinematic simulacra goes, "Super 8" is still a mighty entertaining ride and while the stuff involving the alien presence has been the focus of the vast majority of the pre-release hype, I suspect that most viewers will come away from the film preferring the stuff involving the kids and their efforts to make their silly-but-sincere zombie epic. The action-oriented stuff is all done in a fairly spectacular manner--although the train crash will no doubt get all the buzz, there are plenty of other exciting bits to behold as well--but for the most part, it is stuff that most of us have seen before in one form or another and results in a few scenes that either come across as repetitive or which lead to plot holes that run the risk of deflating the entire enterprise. On the other hand, the stuff involving the kids, especially the early scenes before the train wreck, is frequently hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt and knowledgable in their everyday byplay, especially during that strange period of time when some have crossed over that mysterious line into adolescence and others haven't quite made the journey. Amongst the former, Elle Fanning is simply spectacular as Alice in the way that she comes across as scarily poised and mature while still seeming like a real small-town kid--between this and her recent turn in Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere," she has definitely grown into a young actress worth watching. Amongst the latter, newcomer Joel Courtney is excellent as Joe--his sweetly awkward byplay with Fanning is touching and his reaction when she gives him a zombie bite during a rehearsal is pretty much worth the price of admission--and Riley Griffiths is hilarious as the would-be Spielberg who responds to cast complaints with a delightfully petulant "God, I'm just directing!" that will no doubt resonate with frustrated auteurs of all ages. As for the adults, their roles are as limited as they usually were in such films back in the day but Kyle Chandler has a few good scenes as Joe's dad, a man who is trying to do the right thing by his son but is too blinded by grief and confusion to realize that he is doing the exact opposite.

I don't want to give the impression that I am down on "Super 8" because I am but down on it. This is a exciting and energetic tale that will entertain and resonate with audiences of all ages, whether they are old enough to cheer shout-outs to the likes of George Romero and makeup legend Dick Smith or not. Beyond the aforementioned narrative problems (which weren't exactly unfamiliar aspects of the films it is paying tribute to) and my sneaking suspicion that it might have been even better if Abrams had just dropped all the sci-fi stuff completely and concentrated solely on the kids instead, the biggest problem with "Super 8" may be the enormous expectations that it has generated as a result of the combination of the Abrams-Spielberg dream teaming and its status as one of the few original premises in a summer movie season choked with sequels, remakes and rip-offs. No, it is not the cinematic equivalent of the Second Coming that some have hoped it to be and those expecting such a thing are hereby advised to dial those expectations down quite a bit. However, if you are looking for an entertaining and well-crafted film that will thrill younger viewers while transporting older ones back to the time when they first fell in love with the movies themselves, "Super 8" delivers the goods.

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