Saturday, June 11, 2011

Super 8

In a harsh climate of cynical franchise movie-making, it's easy to forget that the summer movie season is supposed to be fun.  And that movies themselves should be capable of registering a sense of magic, mystique and endless imagination.  The eagerly anticipated and excitingly teased Super 8 may not be the cure to mechanical big studio thrill rides that it was imagined, but what it does (and it does well) is remind of the great possibilities that the season should, and more often than not doesn't, deliver.  Lovingly rooted in the earlier days of popcorn movies, ones in which character development and emotional connection ran in tandem with technical showmanship, J.J. Abrams does little to hide his influences, nor should he.  An unabashed tribute to 1980s-era Spielberg (who produced this flick, and it's the first in a long while to adorn the old school Amblin Entertainment logo at the start), there's an endless affection on display.  A dash of E.T. mixed with The Goonies, gently seasoned with a bit of Stand By Me, it's the ultimate 80s movie mash-up, which many might unfairly call a crutch of sorts; that would be unfair, since even Spielberg admits to wearing his influences on his sleeve.  While elements of Super 8 surely must be perceived as a missed opportunity, the majority of the film is gracefully put together, tenderly and thoughtfully rendered, emotionally affecting, and in a few stellar and extraterrestrial moments works a sort of magic in it's own right.  And while Abrams (he of Lost and Star Trek and Cloverfield) has always been, perhaps, more a shrewd marketer than a great storyteller, there's never a moment in watching Super 8 where one doubts his passion or ambition.

Set in the summer of 1979 in small town America (Lillian, Ohio to be exact, but it might as well be a stand-in for anywhere middle-America) we're introduced to a young man named Joe (Joel Courtney.)  He's recently lost his mother, like many a Spielbergian hero, and the only son to the town's sheriff (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights), a good man whose lost his way.  The only spark to Joe's existence is the movies he shoots with his friends, a rag-tag group of misfits, and all boys club, a loving gesture to the producer's own childhood.  Making cheap little monster movies, there's a palpable excitement in watching a movie so clearly and delightfully in love with making movies.  The director, Charles (Riley Griffiths), a bossy, but industrious young filmmaker calls the need for bigger production values and bigger stories.  Enter Alice (played with preternatural grace by Elle Fanning), a girl with a big heart and messier upbringing, and the boldest location shoot for these young middle schoolers at a nearby train station.  By happenstance and a tingling sense of danger there's a crash, a big one, and an even bigger mystery surrounding it.  All of the sudden the military is involved and really weird things start to happen the sleepy little town.  All that bonds the kids is the hope to finish their little zombie movie, and the everlasting curiosity of youth.

The first half of the film plays out the strongest, perhaps due to Abrams long-standing achievements as a television show runner-- he lays the groundwork beautifully (landing the dismount is a bit more problematic), by elegantly pacing this modestly budgeted coming of age nostalgia trip; it both teasing and playful.  The great and unexpected thing, and one that too many summer filmmakers of late neglect, is that we start to care for these kids, and the sheriff...hell even Alice's deadbeat dad elicits affection.  It helps that the child actors, most of them neophytes, come across so natural, with beats that feel like normal childhood rhythms. And while even the most popular of Spielbergian fare has been reduced to schmaltz more than a few times (and I have little doubt the same feeling come around here sooner or later), there's a palpable emotional undercurrent to Super 8 that feels earned, rather than a cheat.  It may perhaps be because Abrams is just as familiar with television as with films that plays a slight disservice to Super 8, whereas the first half of the film is almost too good, too thoughtfully staged that the second half (where the action\sci-fi\genre takes charge of the loveliness of truthful coming of age) feels a tad rushed, a bit under-cooked.  It's as if all that was there was a great idea.  On shows like Lost and Alias, Abrams could tease and play out an idea for years and keep audiences hooked and guessing...Super 8 has and an hour and fifty minutes.

And so it's when the sci\fi-genre-creature conventions overtakes the carefully-layed out character portraits that Super 8 gets into a bit of trouble.  It almost feels like a side plot that's given too much time.  The mystery of the story revolves around an alien, again of nostalgia-based origins.  Part E.T., part Close Encounters, with a hint of War of the Worlds mayhem; the creature itself feels almost haphazardly designed and far less ingenious than the kids' zombie creations.  Sort of ugly and devoid of a personality in film rich with one, it feels a bit like a missed opportunity for pure popcorn alchemy.  As does the military interference, more a device and distraction.  What good does come out of it a marvelous and spellbinding climax, that while perhaps not quite earned, does register an old school sense of filmmaking magic that mixes the grand showmanship of technological possibility with real world emotion.  I'd be hard pressed to say I didn't leave the theater with a gently moist cheek and grin on my face.  Again, whatever there is against Abrams the filmmaker, passion and ambition are there in spades.

For the full circle effect of honoring a great filmmaker in his youth, who famously made his own monster super 8 films, only to end up producing the most affectionate ode to them, is while a bit of the meta-fun, there's enough sparkle in it's own right to celebrate Abrams trip.  For sturdy filmmaking (he's a fan of flares, so Star Trek fans will rejoice) and carefully developed, emotionally invested characters may be the rarest of things for summer movie offerings, it's also the richest.  There's a lovely even fuller full circle moment in Super 8, where Joe is applying make-up to Alice.  She rolls her blonde hair up into a perfectly coiffed bun, reminiscent of the classic Hitchcock model.  Abrams wears his Spielberg influence in his heart, the same way Spielberg wore his Hitchcock influence on his heart.  Whether it was intentional or merely a fluke, there's a sense of the filmmaker paying nods on more than level at once, and any fan of magic of cinema can embrace that.  B+

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