Wednesday, 22 June 2011
Super 8 (a second opinion)
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Glynn Turman, Noah Emmerich
By Alan Bacchus
J.J. Abrams’ painstaking love letter to the Steven Spielberg films of old cannot live up to the true magical experience of say ET or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but he’s not allowed to try and damned if he doesn’t come really, really close. Abrams does such a good job of aping the kids vs. adults theme Spielberg popularized in the ‘80s, it brought me back to those summer days as a suburban kid playing guns in the backyard, blowing off firecrackers illegally and just about getting into any kind of dangerous shit I could think of. Super 8 is not perfect, but it makes for the most highly entertaining summer film of the year – a genuine love for film, filmmaking and just being a kid.
We’re in a classic small Midwestern American town in the ‘70s, an idolized working class suburban world where kids can ride bikes safely without helmets and without adult supervision. The kids in this film are not unproductive brats but highly motivated pre-teen geeks who have channelled their love of horror and monster movies into their own filmmaking coterie. Joe, Charlie, Preston and their 10-year-old friends are in the midst of shooting their latest 8 mm zombie film for the Cleveland Super 8 Film Festival. Charles (Griffiths), the fat kid, is the director and Joe (Courtney) is the special effects guy. After roping the unattainable blonde Alice (Fanning) into the mix they have their full cast and are ready to film their big emotional scene at night at the train station. The joy of having a real train pass behind the camera to achieve ‘production value’ turns to tragedy when the train derails and crashes in a spectacular accident.
After the accident, funny things start to happen in the small town. Mysterious military men show up to take scientific samples, mysterious electrical disturbances cause power outages and a gnarly beast seems to be chasing away dogs and abducting people from the town. Joe and Charlie have a theory that it’s an alien experiment gone wrong and a government cover-up. Like ET, it’s the kids versus the adults, using their guile, ingenuity and naiveté to save the town and the kidnapped townsfolk from both the beast and those despicable military men.
J.J. Abrams is so reverential to Spielberg it was almost mandatory that Spielberg be involved to shepherd this project as producer. Abrams cherry picks plotting and character elements from Jaws, ET, Close Encounters, Goonies and even Jurassic Park to create a fun, thrilling and supremely entertaining chimera of a film. The town hall scene in which the police deputy answers the questions of the people apes similar scenes in Jaws and Close Encounters. The sharply paced montage scenes pay homage to the great preparation scene in Close Encounters. And a confrontation with the beast in a control unit trailer reminds us of the same scene in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The list could go on and on, but none of it feels like theft. The genuine heart brought to the picture by the fine acting of the children relieves Abrams of crafting a purely technical exercise. Such was the case with the awful steroid-infused Star Trek reboot a couple of years ago.
It’s not completely a Spielberg film either, as Abrams’ own stylistic hallmarks are in full effect. The train wreck, for instance, feels remarkably like the plane crash scene in the pilot episode of Lost. If anything, the wreck is almost over-produced. Lasting minutes, it’s a bombardment of explosions and flying cars tumbling continuously for much longer than what would happen in reality. But he can’t be faulted for pulling out the stops to create a spectacle. As usual, he shoots the film in wide-angle anamorphic and along with it, more lens flares. Though distracting in Star Trek, they actually fit the mood in this film and reference Spielberg’s own play with light to highlight emotion and create a tone of magic escapism.
The film threatens to fall apart in the final act, where the plotting fails us. For example, we see a huge army firing guns and attacking what feels like an army when it’s really just the one beast. The beast, which the kids learn is actually benevolent, never develops into the sympathetic character we’re meant to believe. And the creation of his spaceship just doesn’t make sense. That said, there’s a surprisingly profound moment between the beast, Joe and his treasured pocket watch that hits all the right emotional buttons. Again, it’s not at the level of ET’s dramatic departure from earth, but it’s touching nonetheless.