Friday, June 10, 2011
Super 8 (***)
Written and Directed by JJ Abrams
The similarities are obvious. The allusions are there. There's a reason people continue to talk about Super 8 as if it's some hybrid of The Goonies, Close Encounters, and E.T. That's not just because of the content (group of child protagonists, unfamiliar - possibly dangerous - alien visitors, the late 1970's), but because of the atmosphere. There was a certain mixture of adventure and innocence that came along with all those films from the 70's and 80's and Super 8 does its best to capture that feeling. It's one hell of an effort, a story straight out of the early Spielbergian fantasies equipped with the more sophisticated special effects of today.
Four months after his mother died in a steel mill accident, 12-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) lives plaintively with his still bereaved father, police deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler). Jackson has become irascible, slightly depressive and all Joe can do to escape this home of mope is hang out with his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) and help him on his homemade horror movies. Joe is the make-up artist. Based on the evidence we see, Joe's work is the only thing keeping Charles' work from looking totally amateur, as he carefully transforms his other young friends into murderous zombie flesh-eaters.
One of those friends is Alice (Elle Fanning), a 14-year-old girl whom Charles drafts to play the part of a newly created wife character. Joe quickly becomes smitten and is almost completely taken with her when she gives the performance of a lifetime during one of their rehearsals. These productions are obviously not used to quality acting. The small production team sneaks into a small, rickety train station to shoot their scene, only to be interrupted by an incoming train. Charles seizes the opportunity to increase "production value" and shoots the scene with the train roaring in the background. All is well, until Joe sees a truck board the train tracks and collide head on with the train and create the most high-flying train derailing in the history of man.
The children barely escape injury as steel train cars land around them, but are able to escape before a group of military officers charge the scene. What follows is a strange series of events around the town, including dogs and people disappearing, loss of electricity, and of course, the appearance of small, white Rubik's Cube looking things. While Jackson is left to deal with a town growing in hysteria, Joe and company continue on trying to make their film while slowly learning more about that mysterious train wreck. Soon, that same group of military officers invade the town, searching everywhere for something; some creature that has been taking all of these missing people. It soon becomes obvious that what happened to that train was not just some freak accident.
It will come as no shocker to anyone who reads me regularly that I found the story of the children to be far more interesting than the story of the mysterious creature/alien/whatchamacallit. The film is at its best when it's following this group of ragtag filmmakers as they weave themselves in and out of trouble. The performances from Courtney and Fanning exude a sophistication that far surpasses their years, and their romantic subplot evolves with a sweet tenderness that is both engaging and innocent. The other children, including Charles, as well as Martin (Gabriel Basso) and the pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee), instill the film with an excitable humor that permeates throughout the film. One of the reasons why the film keeps its sunny feel despite its sometimes dark content is because the comedy from these group of talented young performers (particularly Lee) keeps coming without much interruption.
It's hard not to catch the half-veiled glimpses of the creature from Super 8 without thinking of the other numerous, equally-obscured monsters in Lost and Cloverfield (both Abrams-produced projects). It would appear that gruesome monsters behind trees are where Abrams' heart lies, which is a shame, because in both this film and his 2009 film Star Trek, he showed a strong gift for working with ensembles and balancing storylines between the numerous captivating characters. Myself, I would have appreciated it if the story of the children wasn't so frequently interrupted by a grumbling alien snatching people off the street without much prejudice.
Super 8's third act disappointed me in some ways and captivated me in others. On the one end, it seems to devolve into a rather mindless Summer action film, nearly abandoning the strong characters that it worked so hard to establish. It also contains a sequence that contains some supreme special effects and exquisite filmmaking. Supreme talent behind the camera is probably something that we come to expect from Abrams, and this is probably the main area where which the comparisons to Spielberg are most apropos. Abrams is often dynamic and audacious with the camera and with the help of cinematographer Larry Fong, he makes what will likely be one the of the most beautifully crafted films of the year.
Super 8's screenplay does rely a little too much on easy set-ups and payoffs, and too often it settles on sentiment and cheese when it could delve deeper into the darker territory that it introduces. At the end of the day, Abrams intended to make a flashy, entertaining Summer film and Super 8 is one of the better ones you can see in the theaters right now. I do feel like it holds its own as a film, even though it does hold true to a familiar formula seen throughout numerous films made decades earlier. It felt more like thrilling homage than hacky theft, and while I could probably go the rest of my life without seeing a film that has an alien in it, this one wasn't too bad.