Thursday, June 23, 2011

SUPER 8 - Is It Super Great or Did I Super Hate?

SUPER 8 Review:

- Super 8 exists as a living, breathing tribute to the kinds of movies that you just don't see a lot of anymore. It's an homage to all things Spielberg, 80's, and Amblin - an attempt to make a new sci-fi family film that falls squarely into the filmic cannon alongside the likes of E.T. and The Goonies. Writer/director JJ Abrams - a man whose name is associated with high-concept sci-fi like Lost, Fringe, and the recent Star Trek reboot - bathes this movie in a warm glow of nostalgia. Everything from the cinematography to the dialogue is directly lifted from the old-school Spielberg playbook, and it's very much appropriate that Spielberg himself serves as producer. The movie itself is set in 1979, so the nostalgia-factor is even more heightened. I was born in 1982, but for me, seeing the kids in this movie - their world, their clothes, their haircuts, the movie posters on their walls - I was instantly flooded with a huge sense of nostalgia. Partly for the days when I was a kid (which increasingly feels like another world from the one we live in today), and partly for the movies that I watched and loved as a kid. Movies like E.T. and The Goonies - they were kids films, family films. But there was a dark tinge to them as well. They depicted broken families - divorce, loss, loneliness. They put their kid protagonists in real danger against dark and menacing forces. They had kids acting like kids - i.e., the kids in these films were mean, vulgar, and often getting into trouble. In today's world of candy-coated kids movies, you just don't see these types of movies anymore - the movies that capture the real sense of darkness, of adventure, of possibility, of fear - that's inherent in childhood. And really, this is where Super 8 squarely hits its mark. The best part of the film, by far, is the interplay between the kids at the center of the story. This may not be a great sci-fi film, but it is a great kid-adventure story. And after seeing Super 8, you'll be feeling that childlike sense of wonder and adventure that you don't get much these days in this era of CGI lightshows.

Young actor Joel Courtney is, to that end, the heart and soul of Super 8. He's the classic Spielbergian kid character - somewhere in the middle of the sliding scale of geeky emo kids. Courtney does a fantastic job though as pre-teen Joe Lamb. He's a slightly awkward kid, still reeling from the death of his mother in a factory accident, but with a lot of bottled-up emotion inside of him. Joe spends most of his free time with his group of friends - a bunch of sorta-nerdy outcast types who get together to make homemade movies on a Super 8 cam. Charles - a big, chubby kid with a nasally voice, is their defacto leader - the director of the movies and Joe's best friend. Charles has a crazy family - teenage sisters, an overbearing mom, but they're like a surrogate family to Joe. Cary is the crazy one of the group - he loves lighting things on fire and plays the monster in all of the kids' movies, because he's their go-to stuntman. Preston is the quiet one - he sort of tags along with the others - you get the sense he wouldn't fit in with anyone else. And then there's Martin - he's the big kid of the group - taller and more mature than the rest. He's sort of like a kid Clark Kent - his dorky glasses and awkwardness barely hide the fact that he's a big, good-looking kid who the other kids look up to. It's an absolutely great ensemble of kid actors, not a weak link in the bunch. Riley Griffiths is superb as Charles - he has many of the best lines and is very funny, but he's also not a Chunk-like caricature. To JJ Abrams' credit, all of the characters feel real and well-rounded. Ryan Lee as Cary is another standout - totally goofy-looking but inevitably reminiscient of that one kid you knew growing up who always had one hand clutching a lighter.

The monkeywrench that gets thrown into the group is Elle Fanning's character, Alice. Alice meets the group of boys for the first time, when they cast her in their zombie movie. But Alice and Joe's family have history. Alice's father worked in the factory where Joe's mother was killed. and Joe's dad seems to hold him partially responsible for what happened. Suffice it to say, there's bad blood between them. And yet, Joe (and all of his friends) immediately begin crushing on the slightly older Alice, and there are a lot of great awkward adolescent / first-love sort of moments between Joe and Alice. I am pretty sure at this point that amazing acting ability runs in the Fanning family veins. Elle Fanning is phenomenal as Alice - turning in a mesmerizing performance as the gifted yet haunted character. I was very impressed with Elle in the recent film Somewhere, but this might be her defining performance to date. Again, it's sort of a trademark of those old 80's kid-adventure movies to have the token girl / love interest hanging out with the mostly-boys club of characters. But JJ Abrams evolves that role to be much more substantial than what you'd see in your typical 80's kids flick - and Fanning makes the most of that opportunity.

JJ Abrams beautifully captures the dynamic between the kids, and he throws in some great adult roles as well. Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights fame is pitch perfect as Joe's still-in-mourning dad - and his presence is sort of interesting in that it's a role reversal from the absentee father in E.T. But that broken family dynamic is certainly very Spielbergian in nature. Ron Eldard also does a nice job as Fanning's dad-with-a-drinkin'-problem. Personally though, I loved seeing Noah Emmerich (recently of The Walking Dead) show up as a gruff army official. Emmerich brought a much-needed dose of tough-guy gravitas to the film, and gave a little personality to the mostly faceless military operation that was sweeping small-town Ohio in light of some recent strange occurences.

And about that ... if Super 8 falters in any respect, it's that the sci-fi element feels a little bit half-hearted. Abrams tries to give the movie a bit of Fringe-esque mythology, feeding us a rather bare-bones backstory of an angry alien captive held by the US government against its will. But I felt a slight, Lost-like sense of emptiness as we began to learn a bit about the alien. Honestly, I think the movie could have gotten away with telling us little to nothing about the creature at the center of its plot. But through Lost-style archival film-reels, we learn just enough to provoke about a hundred additional questions about the creature's origins, and then, nothing. It's funny, too, because Abrams focuses so much on the kids and their relationships that the movie's ultimate attempt to forge an E.T.-like relationship between Joe and the alien feels a bit rushed and hamfisted. It makes their big, "E.T. phone home" moment feel overly cheesy and not exactly earned. Plus, whereas E.T. was a cute, unassuming little creature, Super 8's alien is a monstrous killer who spends most of the movie picking off innocent victims, Alien-style. It's hard to feel much sympathy or love for him by movie's end. It's an example of how Super 8 is trying to pay homage to so many genre touchstones that, sometimes, it feels like it doesn't quite have its own voice. This is most evident whenever the alien creature is front and center, because the film can't seem to decide if it's a monster or a victim - and in turn, is this a monster movie, or an E.T.-style boy-and-his-alien sort of thing? Because a lot of the alien-related beats feel a bit rushed, the movie never gets to have its big, memorable, kids-riding-on-flying-bicycles type of moment. I know JJ Abrams loves his slow-building mysteries, but in a two hour movie of this nature, so much secrecy can make it hard to deliver the right kind of emotional payoffs.

All that said, there is so much charm inherent in Super 8 that it's hard to hate too much on it. From the sense of awe and wonder that the movie is able to evoke, to its amped-up, old-school action set-pieces (with shades of movies like Jurassic Park and Close Encounters thrown in - hey, like I said, this movie could have been called "Ode to Spielberg"), to the vintage, late 70's-era sets, costumes, and soundtrack - Super 8 is the kind of movie that will keep any movie fan, any twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty-something grinning throughout. Even the end credits are great, as we get to see the hilarious zombie movie that Joe and Charles and their crew ended up creating together. That little piece of bonus footage alone is nearly worth the price of admission. Look, I think Super 8 lacks the originality of vision or a sharp-enough premise to be considered a classic in the same vein as the movies it pays homage to. But, in a summer that's seen a lot of flash and little of substance, I can't help but think that Super 8 is a very welcome reminder of what movies used to be - not merely spectacles, but adventures.

My Grade: B+

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