Friday, June 24, 2011

Super 8

Its time again for kid adventures. With ‘Super 8′, J.J. Abrams pays homage to kid adventure and sci-fi mystery films of the ’70s and ’80s. J.J. Abrams Super 8 is an echo. It echoes the innocence of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin films of the 1980s, it echoes the imagined purity of small town America, and it echoes the innocence and coming of age through the lens of aspiring filmmakers.

The film takes place in 1979 in the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio (all these new sci-fi movies happening in ohio recently). Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) recently lost his mother in an industrial accident and struggles to connect with his distant father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff’s deputy who is a good guy but doesn’t know how to relate to his son. With school out for the summer, Joe and his friends Charles (Riley Griffiths), Martin (Gabriel Basso), Cary (Ryan Lee), and Preston (Zach Mills) work on a zombie movie to enter into a local film fest. Charles asks Alice (Elle Fanning) to act in their movie and Joe clearly has a crush on her, which is problematic since she’s the daughter of Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard), the guy Jackson holds responsible for his wife’s death.

Despite all of its creature-feature promises, the story of the film is classic Spielbergian drama: in 1970s small-town Ohio, young Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney) loses his mother in a tragic accident. Joe’s father, deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), is broken by the loss, and buries his pain beneath his role as the town’s stalwart protector. Alone and neglected, young Joe finds his own ways to displace his grief -- mainly by clutching onto a locket his mother wore, and by aiding his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) in making an amateur super 8 movie called “The Case,” which the boys hope to submit to a local film festival.

One night, Joe, Charles, and the rest of their crew (Cary, a pyro, Martin, a worry-wort, and Preston, a goody-two-shoes) decide to sneak away to film a pivotal scene out by the train station. The boys are joined by a girl (of course): Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), a skilled actress who happens to be the rebellious daughter of the town drunk…and Joe’s secret crush.

But their personal troubles fade into the background when the group, while shooting a movie near the train tracks, witnesses a massive derailment. Certain charges can be leveled against J.J. Abrams but the man is a master of action. The derailment is the film’s big set piece and it’s absolutely spectacular. It’s loud, hectic, but well-shot and well-edited so you can always follow what’s happening and where characters are in relation to each other.

The kids are told to keep quiet about what they’ve seen by the man who caused the wreck, their science teacher with a secret past, Old Man Woodward (not the movie’s strongest plot point). But Charles’ Super 8 camera was running the whole time and its footage holds the secret to a mysterious creature that is abducting people and their electrical appliances. A suspicious military force led by Commander Nelec (Noah Emmerich) arrives, tries to cover up the incident, and recover what has escaped from a sealed train car.

Super 8 is not the sci-fi monster movie that some people may be expecting. There is indeed a strange creature terrorizing the kids’ town, but this plot thread is mostly used for narrative drive, and the creature itself is seldom shown in the film (until the climax, of course). What the movie chooses to focus on instead, is how this group of kids bond and develop during this extraordinary event -- especially Joe and Alice, whose budding romance (and all the problems it causes) is more of a “Romeo & Juliet” story.

The kid characters in Super 8 are pretty thinly drawn -- sad kid, crazy kid, egotistical kid, scared kid, etc. -- however the young actors playing them are pretty solid. The kids are at once ’70s vintage and very modern, using old slang (“mint!”) combined with a modern edge (some profanity, but nothing too offensive). Several of the kids are very charismatic (Griffiths as Charles and Ryan Lee as pyromaniac Cary steal just about every scene they’re in), and the two leads (Courtney and Fanning) are downright talented. Their puppy-love romance has many layers of grief, guilt, loneliness and longing bubbling under the surface, and the movie’s best moments come from watching Joe and Alice connect over their pain.
As a newcomer, Courtney isn’t the greatest when it comes to nuance and subtlety -- but thankfully the script calls for Joe to be mostly numb and blank-faced instead of openly emotional; his feelings are instead expressed through symbolic means, such as the locket he clutches for comfort. Elle Fanning (the sister of Dakota Fanning) is leagues ahead of the boys, and Abrams wisely puts most of the heavier moments in the film on her shoulders and lets her carry them home. Definite star potential there.

The adults in the film (like the creature) are mostly used for backdrop and filler moments in the story. Kyle Chandler continues to be one of the better actors working today, and pulls off a character arch that is so understated you have to watch his eyes and the very lines of his face to pick out the complexity of what’s going on in deputy Lamb’s troubled head. Ron Eldard similarly does well playing Alice’s dad, Louis Dainard, who he manages to lift out of the realm of cliche (the town drunk / abusive father) up to an equally complex and nuanced performance.

Other faces also pop up here and there. But they are not of much significance.

I wish that the other young actors were up to Courtney and Fanning’s level. Granted, the movie doesn’t make a lot of demands from Lee (Cary is fire-obsessed comic-relief, the end) and Basso (Martin is nerdy, the end), but it desperately needed Griffiths to step up. He can play a young teenager naturally enough, but when the script calls on him for comic timing or deeper emotions, his performance becomes uneven. Sometimes he’ll hit his mark and other times his readings come out stilted. Furthermore, when the scene is just Charles and Joe, there’s not much chemistry between the two and you struggle to believe that they’ve been friends since kindergarten.
The downside is that the final act of the movie devolves into a standard sci-fi action chase, complete with a Spielberg-brand, gooey feel-good ending that does away with a lot of the great foundation built beneath it. However, this is often the case with stories that hinge on some kind of central mystery: the revelations are rarely as satisfying as the anticipation. The creature (for all the mystery surrounding it) isn’t all that impressive, and for some, the character transitions will feel rushed or unearned (I found them to be subtle and nuanced, but that’s just me).

Overall, though, Super 8 is a pretty enjoyable movie experience and the young characters at its center are pretty entertaining. The story is nothing new or revolutionary, but the element of nostalgia is a favorable one. Oh, and for those wondering: And yes Abrams manages to put in his signature "lens-flare" in here as well. Go figure.

Finally, Super 8 is a loving homage to the early directing and producing work of Steven Spielberg. Abrams struggles to evoke a feeling rather than making direct references to E.T., The Goonies, etc. It’s an honorable goal and I respect Abrams for attempting to make a film that stands alongside those beloved movies. When it comes to creating a spectacular action film that’s filled with humor and honest performances he comes close to achieving his goal, but numerous missteps turn inspiration into imitation. It’s a sincere form of flattery, but no one would confuse it for the real thing.


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