Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Super 8 (2011) dir. J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Glynn Turman, Noah Emmerich
By Greg Klymkiw
J.J. Abrams has, with his third feature Super 8, finally evolved into a dreadfully dull director with modest competence at jockeying the camera during basic dialogue sequences, but zero talent for anything involving action, suspense or the sort of scope or magic one expects in a feature film.
Seeing his wretched first feature Mission Impossible III, I was, quite simply, appalled. The movie was dull, noisy and jam-packed with one action set piece after another that displayed all the directorial prowess of a career bricklayer who'd inexplicably been hired to direct the back end of a film franchise that in previous helpings boasted such true masters of cinematic grammar as Brian De Palma and John Woo. MI-III was so pathetic that at a certain point, all I could focus my attention on was the question, "Who the hell is J.J. Abrams and why would anyone entrust this picture to such a loser?"
After seeing the film I discovered who he was and why he might have been hired. The guy was a prolific television hack who'd enjoyed enough success in the boob tube world that even I, who more or less stopped watching television in the ‘80s, had at least heard of his series Lost. MI-III gave me no desire to watch Lost or any of the other TV offerings he regurgitated for the greedy open mouths of the Great Unwashed.
I did, however, decide to cut Abrams some slack and see his 2009 Star Trek reboot. Being a huge fan of the original television series (when TV used to be good), Nicholas Meyer's first rate feature Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and not even minding The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, I thought only a gibbering gibbon would be able to mess it up.
While I wouldn't call Abrams's Star Trek a complete disaster - some of his approaches to providing a bit of fun insight into younger versions of Kirk, Spock and the rest of the gang were not without merit - he proved once again that he had absolutely no talent for action, suspense and cinematic grammar beyond the rudimentary. All encounters of the kick-butt variety were cacophonous, sloppily edited and rife with poorly composed and mostly too-close shots.
My expectations for Super 8 were virtually non-existent save for one salient item - Steven Spielberg was producing. So here's the deal: I love Spielberg the director. Always have and always will. As a producer, he's no slouch either and often his hand is played quite heavily in product he doesn't direct himself (the most notable example being Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist).
Unfortunately, Super 8 is pretty lame for the most part. The picture can be tolerated by the discriminating and enjoyed by the indiscriminate.
On the plus side, the acting is almost all fine. The performances by the juvenile leads are perfectly acceptable, but with one exception - Elle Fanning. She goes above and beyond the call of duty and is truly phenomenal as the geek girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The camera not only loves this actress, but she delivers the goods in two ways. As the "love interest" for our makeup-effects-obsessed juvenile lead, she acquits herself very well with the kind of dreamy, romantic, yet mouth-watering innocence - not unlike the great child performances of Hayley Mills in the classic Disney films. Even more astounding is her "acting" in the super-8 horror film that her character plays in. Acting like you're acting is always a tough stretch for any actor, but to deliver this with such expertise as a child actress is frankly astounding.
Most of the adults in the film are ho-hum, but there are a couple of standouts by adults in supporting roles.
Noah Emmerich as the slimy military villain bent on covering up the government's nefarious activities makes good work of his otherwise by-the-numbers role and Glynn Turman as the scientist involved in the said nefarious activities who seeks redemption for his role in the proceedings is terrific.
It's especially great seeing Turman in these supporting roles of late. The former child stage star first blipped on my radar in the terrific and criminally forgotten ‘70s Michael Schultz picture Cooley High. I always thought he'd become a huge star. Instead he toiled as a working actor in the graveyard of television. I hope someone finally takes notice and gives him a major role in a feature film. His memorable supporting performance in Super 8 and the picture's surprisingly decent box office might finally get him upfront and centre where he always belonged.
The plot of Super 8 is pretty straight forward stuff. A group of kids in a bucolic small town setting in the late ‘70s spend their off-time making horror movies on Super 8 FILM (yes, kiddies - FILM - that's what we used to use before tape and/or digital). One night while stealing some after-hours shots at the train station, they witness and capture on film a massive derailment. The train in question is a military train and, of course, its most precious cargo is a monster from outer space. With a creature on the loose, the nasty military decides that they're either going to capture/kill it or contain the whole area. It's up to the plucky kids to discover the truth and come to the rescue.
Okay, so this is all rather familiar, but in genre, familiarity doesn't always have to breed contempt if a filmmaker delivers a terrific roller coaster ride. Alas, J.J. Abrams is at the helm and I'm now convinced he just doesn't have the stuff to more than adequately direct feature films.
Thanks to Spielberg - no doubt - there are fewer annoying close-ups and rapid fire cutting, many of the set pieces are not without visual merit, the period detail is nicely observed (for the most part) and one leaves the theatre about as satisfied as one would be after scarfing down a nice bag of Old Dutch ketchup-flavoured chips. We know the product, it's consistently satisfying and once down the gullet, the feverishly masticated deep fried junk is eventually expelled into whatever receptacle one chooses to relieve their waste matter into.
Abrams is a dullard. He takes the familiar, renders it competently and by the end, all we have is something that keeps us in our seats without generating sore posteriors. Super 8 is the cinematic equivalent to the fine salve for fissures known as Anusol. As familiar as Abrams's movie is, the picture could have been the stuff of something so much greater. But for that, one needed a director who was born to deliver big screen entertainment. Basic craft can be learned, but generating anything beyond that requires the gift of cinematic storytelling be hardwired into the DNA.
Some might argue that television drama is fine stomping grounds for a director and that many of the greats cut their teeth on generating product for the idiot box. True enough. I'd argue that most of those directors, though, worked in European television drama (like Von Trier or Fassbinder) where the standards are often higher and demand a sense of sweep and scope. Or, more notably, the directors worked in the medium of North American television when jockeying the camera, while often the first order of business, wasn't the thing that propelled the filmmakers into bigger than life feature films. What propelled the best directors was the fact that they had "it" to begin with - something that Abrams is clearly without.
Take a look at any of the television work Spielberg himself toiled on before making the leap to feature films. His voice and added frisson in everything from his Rod Serling Night Gallery episodes, a Columbo mystery movie and through to his stunning MOW Duel were more than apparent. John Frankenheimer's live television dramas from the ‘50s are as cinematic as all get out. Just watch his electrifying Playhouse 90 teleplays like The Comedian or Days of Wine and Roses and you see a born filmmaker. Sam Peckinpah's forays into early TV westerns (in particular The Rifleman and his amazing TV movie Noon Wine) are also astounding and crackle with the genius that needed a bigger canvas to truly explode.
Abrams is not such a director. He's a hack - and a barely competent one at that.
The result is Super 8 - a moderately engaging genre picture that always feels like it should be better than it is. Many younger viewers will enjoy it, but try showing them some vintage Spielberg or Joe Dante's Gremlins pictures before dragging them and THEN see how much they like Super 8.
I'm pretty sure that the operative response in that context will be, "It was okay."