Thursday, June 9, 2011

Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011)

That Super 8 has the audacity to arrive on a marketing platform billing it as an original film is more a testament to the cesspool of derivative sequels, reboots and unimaginative new franchises that have already made this, the Summer of Sequel, such a perfunctory, unengaging play for box office receipts. In this climate, an earnest (if borderline shameless) tribute to the director least in need of a profile boost is a momentary breath of fresh air at the multiplex, even if, in isolated moments, it feels like no more than the perfumed bathroom of a smoky casino floor.

By the same token, as much as the film appropriates Spielbergian themes, stylistic touches and, of course, referential shots, Super 8 works best as a self-contained film about the possibility of a young kid's love for escapist film coming to life. Some scenes of this movie are downright comically outsized when set against the dirtied, naïve prepubescents who run through monster rampages, military quarantines and, eventually, an all-out war zone. But this also makes for a film that digs deeper into Steven Spielberg's entire ethos as a filmmaker until it arrives at last to the wide-eyed Boy Scout within the world's richest, most powerful director, the kid who would make a Western just to get a merit badge and would find ways to show his love for the films of his youth even in his late career..

Abrams focuses Super 8 on a group of kids in an Ohio town who pass the time by making movies with the titular film stock. Charles (Riley Griffiths), a portly, imaginative boy whose childhood fighting for air among his many siblings makes him sufficiently bossy and hard-edged to be a director, works on zombie films with his friends. Looking for "production value," Charles has his crew set up a scene at the town train station after dark, and when an actual locomotive toots and chugs toward them in the distance, he can scarcely contain his glee. So excited is he to get his shot that he ignores how fast the train is moving, how sinisterly large it is, and the sound of a pickup truck jumping on the tracks and heading right for the oncoming vehicle.

The resulting crash rips apart the dour calm established by the quietly moody opening and leads to a monster movie that blends elements of Jaws, Cloverfield and, unexpectedly, the wondrous optimism of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If it does not reach the tense heights of Spielberg's own monster movie nor the purity of his idealistic view of alien "invasion," Super 8 at least improves upon the Abrams-produced modern monster movie by introducing characters who actually feel like people and are worthy of our attention. This child cast he assembled is revelatory, from Griffiths' self-blind bossiness to Gabriel Basso looking and sounding like a young Martin Starr, which will always score bonus points with this writer.

But Abrams scored a coup with Joel Courtney, who portrays protagonist Joe Lamb. A meek, gentile boy dealing with his mother's death in a mill accident and his (naturally) absentee father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler). We get an insight into the effect this has had on the boy with wonderfully understated character quirks: he keeps his mother's locket and does makeup for Charles' zombie shorts, traditionally feminine qualities that gratefully never elicit lazy homophobia or cissy jokes from his friends. In a film teeming with Spielberg's influence, Courtney's darting eyes (both nervous and curious), fleeting smile and sense of stunted, frozen-in-time innocence captures so many of Spielberg's films and performances within them that Spielberg himself must have made sure to file his name for future use. At least, I hope he did.

Joe finds a counterpoint in Alice (Elle Fanning, rapidly becoming a young actress who cannot be ignored), a pretty but tough girl raised by an alcoholic deadbeat. She can never think of a good reason for agreeing to be in Charles' movie with all these dorks, but she keeps showing up even after the wreck, implicitly dealing with her own feelings of a rough childhood. She and Joe share a moment watching an old home movie that taps so completely into the best of Spielberg's sentimentality that, for a moment, the film feels less like a loving tribute to him than the latest entry in the director's actual filmography. Super 8 may be loud and tense, but Joe and Alice make the quiet moments, the starry-eyed bits that remain even after the rampage begins, all the more touching.

If the emotional content achieves a quality worthy of its own distinction, the actual action does admittedly feel like a collection of allusions to Spielberg and, to my delighted surprise, Bong Joon-ho's The Host. The references pile up, and for some, the film will amount to no more than "Spielberg porn," but I prefer another writer's summary: "Spielberg erotica." Super 8 is too fond, lightly teasing and emotive to be naught but a slapped-together affair of someone else's work. Abrams seeks to visualize a cinematic form of the realized dreams of aspiring kid filmmakers like young Spielberg and George A. Romero (who also made Super 8 movies as a lad): their dreams came true when they hit the big time, while Super 8 works on a Last Action Hero-esque level of making the genre films that stick with youths become reality. Viewed from that perspective, a vein of pure glee runs through even the tensest moments of Super 8 that makes it hard to suppress a grin.

Of course, "erotica" might also be the operative term over "porn" because the former deals with foreplay and titillation while the latter has a follow-through, something Abrams has yet to master. The last act of the film goes off the rails, moving between a chaotic battlezone as malfunctioning machinery causes soldiers to fire on each other instead of the monster and a subterranean layer that's too murky and monotonous to carry the same tension the film maintained earlier in isolated pockets of Lillian. There is also the matter of the lens flares, which Abrams uses so often it became something of a running joke at my screening; J.J. could find a way to put a blue lens flare on a shot of infinite black with only a smoldering cigarette butt for light. In a film that spends so much time trying to evoke one of the master stylists of mainstream film, this amateurish signature threatens to break the illusion that we're watching some lost movie made by talented, imaginative directors in that brief window of studio opportunity in the '70s.

And yet, as much as I sometimes felt like I were watching a supercut of Spielberg films on YouTube rather than an "original" movie, Super 8 has an irrepressible charm to it. It has no real reason to be set in the '70s, but it's nifty to go back to a time when a girl would actually have to ask "How do I act like a zombie?" because these genres hadn't been done to death. (I did laugh inordinately hard at my Twitter pal, Leora, though, when she responded to Fanning's question with "Act like you're in a Sophia Coppola film," which nicely demonstrates why we get along so well). Like Spielberg's own Indiana Jones movies, Super 8 collects the tropes and plots of movies dear to its director's heart and packages them into something both derivative and special. Its most charming and winsome cultural artifact is its total lack of self-consciousness; apart from a few deflating lines by brace-faced pyromaniac Carey (my least favorite character by a long shot), this is not a film that soft-pedals its sincerity or stands outside itself offering preemptive self-criticism. It merely exists to entertain, which is different from most ostensibly "fun" movies these days, nearly all of which are transparent profit grabs even on the parts of their makers.

I would have liked to see more physical effects over CGI to really capture the retro feel, but Super 8, like the best of its mentor's mainstream fare, overcomes its flaws, redundancies and occasional immaturity to make a blockbuster that can be calculated to the millisecond to eke an audience response yet earn every wrenched jolt or tear. Frustrating as the movie can be at times, that sense of engineered earnestness is becoming all too rare these days, and I'd rather hang out in the nostalgic, sharp world of Super 8 than have to hear one more assurance that X-Men: First Class read like it was conceived for 9-year-olds because "that's true to the comics."

13 comments:

  1. 4 stars...you are very generous!! I hated this to be honest and was bored beyond belief. Once I saw the driver of the pick up had survived a head on with a train going at 80mph and weighing 1000's of tonnes it lost me as that pushed credibilty way beyond belief even by Hollywood standards.
    But each to their own and taste is an individual thing.

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  2. I really have no clue what to say. J.J. Abrams is a charlatan and he lures people in with spectacle and lazy ambiguity. He is possibly the most overrated person working in show business today, rivaled only by Spielberg. A bad review, and a bad critic for not warning audiences to stay away from this culture polluting filth.

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  3. That's an unfair comment above. Good review, though I'm curious about the final act. Some have said it works well. It'll be interesting to see, and any movie that gets compared to The Host cant be bad.

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  4. I love trolly comments so much, especially when they say nothing and accuse others of bad criticism. How can you not laugh?

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  5. 43t9fisldjfdsfqo9rg3June 11, 2011 at 4:09 AM

    I posted the comment above. What do you want me to say, Jake? You don't seem to have much interest in true film criticism, instead subscribing to the Ebert method of critic profiteering, playing steward to giant, amoral film studios, where you first relent to even seeing this noisy swill, and second, somehow deluding yourself into (strongly!) recommending it to a public who depends on you to protect them. This is what Auburn teaches, huh? Complicity to America's ringmasters? Do you have pride in your work? What are you doing? That you have a screenshot from A Taste of Cherry in your blog banner hanging over this tawdry celebration of capitalism and artifice is an embarrassing indignity. Shame on you, Jake, for selling your passion, you coward.

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  6. Super 8 so far by the reviews I've read is either going to be a movie you like or just seriously hate. I agree Abrams is a charlatan and this movie is 'culture polluting filth' ( couldn't have put it better myself ) but I do know that others are entitled to opinions that differ from my own.
    This is a review that reflects a person's own take on what he saw even though my own feeling about the movie is completely different.

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  7. Jake - I also enjoyed the filmmaking scenes and the interactions between Joe and Alice - very touching and expertly performed. But smothering all that is a big, loud, messy movie with a very disappointing Alien. When the Alien scuttles into his spaceship and the door closes behind him, I could care less about this poor victimized creature.

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  8. Notice the second buffoon in cowardly fashion refused to post his name. And yeah the hate is way off base, and surprising when one considers teh excellent reviews the film has received across the board.

    I must say I loved the alien, and felt the Spielberg-Abrams collaboration produced a splendid nostalgic feels and something that summer multiplex far usually fails at: creating characters that we feel for. There was some very minor narrative inconsistencies, but this indepted hybrid works exceedingly well.

    As always you write with great command and eloquence my friend.

    My rating is 4/5, which I think matches yours.

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  9. 43t9fisldjfdsfqo9rg3......wonderful screen name by the way!

    Your own arrogance (and ignorance) has been well conveyed here.

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  10. Hokahey, I agree. Like I said, the final act is troublesome. It goes off the rails and doesn't earn its climax, especially in regards to the father-son dynamic, which is never a part of the story but something entirely separate to it. This is even more apparent when you realize that Kyle Chandler's character really doesn't do a damn thing for the entirety of the movie. But overall I had too much fun to knock it too much.

    Sam: Yeah, these characters are not all developed, but I still cared for them. They're good solid plotters, and the two lead teens are simply fantastic. I didn't much care for the alien nor the resolution, but a great deal of it worked and I had a blast.

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  11. Haven't seen this film and won't until it's on DVD. I was intrigued by your review and entertained by the comments. Interesting blog site you have here.


    Lee
    Tossing It Out

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  12. Jake, you basically summed up my feelings completely. The movie had flaws, certainly, but the parts that worked just worked so darn well. I think the father-son dynamic was actually very strong, and the scenes of Jackson and Dainard making up and finding their kids together were wonderful. What I thought wasn't quite earned was the emotion imparted to the alien--we simply didn't know enough about him to care about him the way we were supposed to. Plus, it kind of irritates me that the military is always the bad guy in movies like this. But overall, I kinda loved it.

    As to the Anonymous/gobbledygook dude: You do know you're a parody of a leftist, European film snob, don't you? Hilarious. I laughed out loud.

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  13. Stephen, I think the alien is inconsistent as well. We're told of his pain, not shown it, thus it's difficult to truly sympathize with him. I'm less irritated that the military is the bad guy than how two-dimensionally evil they are. I think it's a natural, if deeply flawed, response to contain and study a foreign element, but the military here are prop villains without much motive other than to be mean.

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