DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Super 8

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Super 8

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."


Aaron Horton said...

Boooooo. Abrams a Hack? The creator of the greatest television show of all time? I'm not sure what you do for a living... but I'd love for someone to observe your work for a few days and review it at length.

Royal Saucers said...

LOST was just a recycled show about a bunch of recycled ideas (that were created and done better by others years ago) and re-presented to people who don't know any better. And because they didn't know any better they thought it was really cool. Strong review, I'm glad I decided to shun this film even with the name Spielberg attached. I was almost sucked in but saw the hack's name on it as "director" and thought twice, having seen some of his other flaccid directing attempts.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Dear Mr. Horton: You assert "Lost" is the "greatest television show of all time" though you do not specify if you are making said proclamation within the context of having seen a wide selection of dramatic television programming since the beginning of television as a medium, nor do you specify if you are including work from other countries. Please elaborate.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Dear Mr. Royal Saucers: I cannot disagree with your assertions in any way, shape or form.

skylark said...

Terrific review on 'Super 8'.... , I too, wondered if I would take the time to see it, so except for the acting , i will give it a pass. Particularly loved your reference to the great child actress Haley Mills, my fav as a kid.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Dear Skylark: When I write about movies, I try to encompass everything I know about them. When one has seen over 30,000 movies in a medium that began over a century ago, it's not enough to extol something's virtues (or lack thereof) in a purely contemporary context. Hence, my mention of Hayley Mills with respect to Miss Fanning's great performance. I also suppose I could have touched upon this mediocre movie's context within all sci-fi monster movies I have seen since the beginning of time itself, but it was ultimately enough to trash the picture with respect to how Mr. Abrams will never achieve even a pubic hair of Spielberg's greatness.

Aaron Horton said...

I won't pretend to be in the same realm of your greatness, however, your condescending tone precedes you and your review. I guess Mr. Abrams will continue to be a hack, the recipient of Mr. Spielberg's praise (if not from you), a dominating leader at the box office, and someone who will shape modern cinema and television while the rest of us simpletons find entertainment and inspiration in his work.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Dear Mr. Horton: I will not speak for modern television as I pretty much stopped watching television in the 80s (and what I have seen in recent years at the behest of those wishing to convince me of the greatness of some of it I have found to merely be bargain basement rehashed versions of much better feature films and television from a better age), but I am happy to address the issue surrounding the shaping of modern cinema. It is still in the process of being shaped by true masters like Spielberg, Scorsese and Lynch in tandem with a younger generation of true masters like Tarantino, Aronofsky and Baumbauch. These are all real filmmakers. As for Mr. Abrams, he probably gives good "pitch" and is intelligent enough to generate good contemporary television (if that's not an oxymoron), but he is previously demonstrated utter ineptitude as a director of feature films and now, under the direct tutelage of a master, has risen to a barely competent camera jockey. I will not deny his earning power at the boxoffice by glomming onto two already successful franchises and generating a pallid homage to Mr. Spielberg, but never forget that earnings and kudos are of an ephemeral nature. Time will be the true test of any work's staying power. Also note, I am only citing American directors who are shaping modern cinema and I could go on at length regarding filmmakers outside the narrow frame lines of our puny continent with respect to the rest of them world. It's unfortunate you choose to dismiss lively discourse as condescending. You're welcome to defend your statements and refute mine in as lively a fashion as you choose.

Mike White said...

Hey, Mr. Klymkiw, can you give me a shout? mwhite at impossiblefunky dot com

Greg Klymkiw said...

This is an excellent article on J.J. Abrams and his lack of personal style:


Royal Saucers said...

A very prescient article from the LA Times you've linked. I would only add that we can learn a lot by seeing what a filmmaker does with power. Early on in his career, Spielberg used his power to make any movie he wanted and it was CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. It was his 3rd theatrical feature. Personal, powerful, highly original, timeless. Abrams used all his power to make any movie he wanted for his 3rd theatrical feature and he makes -- a completely derivative, substandard Spielberg tribute movie. Because he has nothing to say himself. Abrams is the ultimate result of corporate Hollywood's survival of the fittest evolution that began in the 1980's. Absolutely devoid of anything to say, trading elusively on the most popular of pop culture.