Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Review: "Super 8"

J.J. Abrams Super 8 features the biggest secret of the summer movie season. So little was known about the plot of the film prior to its release, and while it is a good film, it is a little too reminiscent of science fiction films from the 1980s. The fact that the film tries to sell Steven Spielberg's role as producer only adds fuel to the comparisons. This is only Abram's third film as director and his first original story, after the sequels Mission Impossible III (2006) and Star Trek (2009). Abrams name holds a lot more weight on television, where his name is always attached to a new pilot. I still think his best work has been on Alias, but others may argue Lost is his masterpiece (a series I have never seen). Super 8 deals almost exclusively with a group of young actors and they do not disappoint, especially Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning. It is obvious that these kids control the story as the adults seem too one-dimensional. There is a lot of great character development with the young teenagers and I just wish that Abrams had done more to deal with the adults because it (and other reasons) made the ending slightly stale. I was disappointed by Kyle Chandler as the young hero's father. I had heard such great things about his role on Friday Night Lights - which prompted me to start watching the series - and I was put off by both his character's role and his performance. I was really impressed with how vigilantly the film was able to keep the monster off screen. The reveal is such an important element in science fiction and, even if parts were slightly underwhelming, it was certainly worth the wait. I am not a science fiction aficionado by any means, but I really appreciated that the film was more plot- and character-driven than I had expected. Super 8 is a good film and a welcome respite from a summer of sequels. It is also a reminder of how great 80s films can be and it will undoubtedly make you want to re-watch E.T. (1982).

Set in a small town in Ohio in 1979, Joe Lamb (Courtney) is a thirteen year old who has just lost his mother. She died on the job at the mill. His father Jackson (Chandler) is the deputy and he has found his paternal duties difficult since his wife's death. Four months later Joe is on summer vacation and his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is directing a movie on an 8mm camera. Charles has enlisted their friends Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Cary (Ryan Lee) to help with the movie. Charles is planning to shoot a scene late at night at the train station and asked an older girl from school, Alice (Fanning), to be in the movie. A train approaches while shooting the scene and Charles insists it will add great production values to the movie. The teens keep shooting as the train passes, but suddenly Joe notices a pick-up truck driving on the tracks towards the train and causes a huge accident. Amid the chaos they discover a teacher from their middle school, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Truman), was driving the truck and he urges the kids to stay away. They all escape unscathed, but Alice refuses any further participation. Jackson, learning of Joe's interactions with Alice, tells his son to stay away from her. Charles wants to keep shooting his movie and they go visit the wreckage, where Joe pockets a strange white cube among the debris. Soon pets start vanishing and electronics start disappearing. Eventually the U.S. Air Force, led by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), comes to town and Jackson and the police department no longer have control of the town.

Setting Super 8 in 1979 only makes comparisons to 1980's science fiction films that much more likely. Steven Spielberg has been heavily involved with this particular genre and when I see the name Amblin Entertainment I only think of E.T. I can understand why J.J. Abrams would want Steven Spielberg to produce his film, but is it a hindrance to so heavily promote that fact? The Abrams-produced Cloverfield (2008) succeeded because of its promotional strategy, which was similar to Super 8, but this new film is so obviously an homage to Spielberg-era films that it is somewhat dissatisfying when it feels like a replica. I really enjoyed Super 8 and there are a lot of great elements in the story. The pacing works very well and the film flows right towards the final scenes where it sort of falls astray. There is such a brilliant set up that draws the viewer in that it becomes nearly impossible to have an entirely satisfying ending. On the whole, I really enjoyed the film. The kids, particularly Courtney and Fanning (as mentioned before), were quite special. The relationship between Joe and Alice felt very organic and I was very impressed by how naturally it progressed. In my opinion, J.J. Abrams has yet to establish himself as the visionary that many media outlets proclaim him to be. Super 8 is a fun science fiction adventure and, though it may feel recycled, it certainly makes you feel nostalgic.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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