Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Super 8, or "I think I just filled the cup."

JJ Abrams has gotten himself a lot of film cred lately. From the superb sci-fi thriller Fringe finishing its third season to the Star Trek reboot and so on, Abrams and his production company, Bad Robot, have created a legacy of Science Fiction for the past decade that rivals (if not, surpasses) fellow geek impresario Joss Whedon. While he hasn’t managed to garner the sheer volume of fanboy squeals that Whedon has with entries like Dr. Horrible and the Avengers, instead he’s gone down the path of mainstream cinema…

…and, with Super 8, I believe he’s treading on Masterpiece territory.

The fact that the eponymous Super 8 is merely a goad to initially bring the story’s seemingly star-crossed lovers together is pretty much the only flaw in the film.

Super 8 tells the story of young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), son of the local deputy sheriff, who’s recently lost his mother. Enter the much more sophisticated (well, for small town Ohio, anyway) Alice Dainard, the daughter of a local drunk, played here by the delightfully talented Elle Fanning (yes, sister to Dakota). It seems that she’s the Capulet to Joe’s Montague and the two of them destined to grow closer despite their fathers’ feud.

The movie follows their developing friendship and attraction using the backdrop of a post-Vietnam rural Ohio where a devastating train crash (to which the budding young lovers-to-be and their friends bear witness while shooting a Super 8 amateur zombie movie… I see what you did there, Abrams) unleashes a mysterious X-factor upon the local populace. Soon pets are disappearing (along with people) and vandalism and odd thefts begin plaguing the town, leaving Joe’s deputy sheriff father (Kyle Chandler) overwhelmed even as an Air Force conspiracy develops under his nose.

The result of all of these various threads coming together? Cinema gold!

Abrams, Spielberg and their respective production companies (Bad Robot and Amblin Entertainment) have created a rich slice of 1970’s Americana, complete with believably authentic small town sundries (the Walkman is the next big thing!) and era specific stereotypes (long haired potheads and proto-hipster girls sporting Farrah Fawcett hair and Daisy Duke jeans). Watching the film is like stepping into a time machine with an attention to mundane detail surpassing even recent period adventures like X-men: First Class (whose focus was more on hyper cool style than the everyman details here).

Additionally, the crew has assembled a stellar cast of child actors who never once broke my suspension of disbelief. Each of their roles was fully fleshed with lots of great individual idiosyncrasies and tics… and watching them write, star and produce their own little mini-flick within Super 8 made my movie geek heartstrings twang.

From the writer/director Charles (Riley Griffiths) playing the driven artist to the group’s resident pyro and enthusiastic zombie Cary (Ryan Lee), each member of their impromptu Scooby gang brings something real to the table. Whether it’s Martin’s (Gabriel Basso) thick manner or Preston’s (Zach Mills) inherent cowardice and pantomimes in the background, I don’t think a single synergistic detail was lost in weaving their strengths and flaws into moments that pushed the film’s flow along.

This is especially true during the movie’s climactic chase scene through (and sometimes under) the town where every member of The Case’s film crew has a part to play to resolve the conflict with the movie’s X-factor creature.

I would really like to highlight Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning’s performances here. Both take quite well to the lead roles thrust upon them.

Watching the young Mr. Lamb deal with the death of his mother (and the conflict between him and his overbearing father due to it) is plotted with a very believable arc that concludes with much satisfaction… and all this while cautiously (and unknowingly) courting Alice is a delight. Seeing him go from shy hesitance to confident and assertive worked on many levels.

Then there’s Elle and her turn as Alice… whose initial introduction starts hostile but quickly melts as she’s charmed by Joe’s quiet dedication both as an amateur special effects artist and a caring friend. And, let me say, her transformation from normal girl to recently zombified wife for the mini-movie The Case is probably going to be one of the most memorable transitions in film history. I don’t know how many takes it took to do, but I would’ve loved to have been on set to have seen it myself, in person. Perhaps a little extra screen time could’ve been given to her issues with her own father, but what was there worked well.

The special effects, both those of the movie proper itself and the amateur antics for The Case (the aluminum foil nails particularly), were perfect. The train crash that jump starts the plot is a great stunt with lots of believable threats. I found myself amazed the kids fared as well as they did while still maintaining my suspension of disbelief. The only moment that stretched my credibility for the scene came with the resolution of the truck driver’s fate.

The creature itself, as in Cloverfield, was rightly absent for the majority of the film and, even when it was the star of its own scenes, was kept just where it needed to be to maintain suspense… in reflections, shadows and quick jump cuts. The final reveal was brief and effective, leaving its only disappointment being that the communication with it was one-sided. You would think that heavily hinting that your creature can mind-talk with you for the length of the movie would mean there’d be some conversation… but I guess actions speak louder than words is a true aphorism here.

I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter from people’s reactions, particularly from the movie’s detractors, that it was too much an E.T. retread, especially with Spielberg on board. I say to them that they couldn’t be further from the truth, their only connections being the fact that the movie centers on a group of youngsters, has a government conspiracy and an alien is prominent. The true story of Super 8 is that of the children and an early coming of age as they rise to the occasion presented to them by the plot devices. The creature is just the goad that spurs their arcs, nothing more. No cutesy Drew Barrymore screams or “phone home.”

Now, that’s not to say that Super 8 isn’t a send-up to the classic Spielberg science fictions of yesteryear. The film is most certainly a love poem to those wonder-filled adventures of the 70’s and 80’s, with the seriousness of Close Encounters counterpointing the Scooby-ness of the Goonies combined into what I will proudly say is… THE BEST FILM I’VE SEEN IN YEARS.

My recommendation, if you haven’t guessed so far, is to see this movie immediately. Then see it again. Take your friends and have them take other friends for a second trip. I will be shelling out my own limited entertainment funds to rewatch Super 8 again in theaters and will eagerly await its release on Blu-Ray… so get to it. If you don’t see this movie, I will have lost respect for you and the rest of humanity.

So see it.

See it, See It, SEE IT!

- Nick Michael

Oh, and P.S. – A shout out to Noah Emmerich as Col.Nelec and… Production Value!

1 comment:

  1. While it'll be a bit before my review for the same film is up, I think Mr. Michael and I have identical views of this movie. Identical.

    I was into this movie on every step.

    Brit W.