Thursday, June 23, 2011

Super 8

Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Gabriel Basso, Amanda Michalka
Running Time: 112 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. If it hits in just the right spot it can even trick you into believing you're watching something great by reminding you of a time when you felt you did. Writer/Director J.J. Abrams clobbers us with nostalgia in Super 8 and the results are so wildly mixed I've actually avoided sitting down to share my thoughts on it for days, mostly unsure of what they'd be. Attempting to invoke the spirit of vintage 80's Spielberg directed and produced movies like E.T. and The Goonies is a risky proposition in that it could either alienate or win over audiences in my age bracket who grew up with those films and know how special they are. It takes guts for Abrams to even try to invite comparisons to them for the sake of exposing younger audiences to a type of film that's becoming increasingly uncommon.

At points feeling like an homage and at others a lesser rip-off, moments in the first hour of this Spielberg-produced project (and his fingerprints are all over it) succeeded in making me feel like a 12-year-old again, until the plot careens off the rails and almost crashes and burns like the doomed train in the film. Luckily, it recovers in the last third to finish strong, thanks mostly to the child actors whose staggeringly authentic performances save Abrams as he loses touch with the movie it seemed he set out to make. Part of me wants to shake him silly for falling short of what could have been accomplished for stupid reasons, yet he also deserves a hearty handshake for even attempting to try something like this because we do badly need it. There are far worse things than trying to make a Spielberg-style coming-of-age summer blockbuster devoid of all cynicism but not quite getting all the way there. While I'm convinced I'm more impressed with the idea behind the movie (and maybe also the movie-within-the-movie) than the actual film itself, it's still a fascinating, if flawed, discussion starter that's entertaining and not easily forgettable. Abrams' execution may be sloppy, but he knows the right buttons to push.

Set in the small steel town of Lillian, Ohio in the summer of 1979 12-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is still emotionally traumatized by the accidental death of his mother four months earlier and a strained relationship with his father, Jack (Kyle Chandler), the town's sheriff. He wants to send him to sports camp for a few months, insensitive to Joe's desire to stick around to help best friend and bossy aspiring director Charles (Riley Griffiths) film his low-budget 8mm zombie movie with buddies Martin (Gabriel Basso), Preston (Zach Mills) and Cary (Ryan Lee). He's also somehow been able to recruit Joe's dream girl, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to play the female lead, even as she endures a family drama of her own with alcoholic father Louis (Ron Eldard). During filming the kids witness a train wreck, the results of which are stranger than your usual train wreck and are captured by their Super 8 camera. What that footage uncovers raises a lot of questions and causes much chaos, even as the military, led by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) arrive on the scene with an agenda.

The one aspect of this film that's unquestionably a grand slam are these kids and nearly all its memorable moments are supplied by these child actors who are so good together (in both the real movie and the movie within) that for a while it doesn't even feel like a homage or a tribute to better films from the 80's, but the real deal.  The dialogue between them is smart and funny, they're clearly defined and we care about the relationships between them, especially the dynamic between Alice and Joe. You'd never know this was Joel Courtney's very first appearance in a feature film and Elle Fanning leads the charge with her performance, trumping even her recent work in Somewhere as far as the layers of complexity she brings to it. She has this one huge scene everyone will be talking about involving her character's performance within the zombie movie that works on so many different levels you're likely to get a headache trying to figure out how she does it.  All the kids' performances are great and the first hour resembles the best elements of The Goonies, complete with a map and some of the character types even being dead ringers for those in that family classic. But I still couldn't help but wish it was in the service of a more inventive story.

Once the action gets rolling I couldn't help but wish the young actors' efforts were in the service of a better story.  Problems start with the big train crash sequence, which relies too much on fake looking CGI and reminds us we're watching an everyday modern day blockbuster reliant on cheesy effects rather than character. How did it not occur to Abrams that approach is completely at odds with a period coming-of-age adventure set in the late 70s? The decision to do this is so ill-conceived it made me think Spielberg could have been behind it given his inexplicable (and embarrassing) over-use of the technology in the recent Indian Jones sequel. This also doesn't really feel like it's 1979 so much as a movie that's supposed to be set during that era with kind of a close approximation of the the wardrobe and music, but little else. Not once did I think I was watching anything that took place in the 70's or even early 80's, but rather a picture paying tribute to the values of that era and the movies made during it, present especially in the relationships between the kids and their parents. Fans of his work on Friday Night Lights will be excited to finally see Kyle Chandler on big-screen, then be deflated to discover he's just being asked to play Coach Taylor with a badge instead of a whistle, but slightly meaner. As little as he's given, he's still solid, which is more than can be said for a hilariously miscast Ron Eldard who somehow plays the archetype of the drunken dad even more cartoonishly than it's written. But like an early Spielberg classic, adults are only always seen through the eyes of children, so if it worked then, it's kind of hypocritical to condemn the approach now even if Spielberg was never this blatant about it.

Mid-way through the movie turns into a sequel to Abrams' own Cloverfield mish-mashed with The War of the Worlds. And I'm not even exactly sure how the military gets involved, why citizens are being evacuated or anything. It just kind of happens all of the sudden and we go with it because we're along for the journey with these kids and they're the movie's saving grace. The decision to keep the alien creature's appearance a secret for most of the running time is perplexing, especially considering what it ends up looking like and how little a surprise that is. This isn't about unraveling mysteries, even if it would have helped to have more of the J.J. Abrams who created Lost and Fringe than the one who rebooted Star Trek. Stranger still is the decision to concoct an elaborate backstory for the alien shown in grainy black and white flashback footage that resembles the Dharma Initiative films from Lost minus the intrigue. Yet it all somehow still comes together in an ending that's already been criticized as E.T. meets Close Encounters, if you can call that a criticism. For me it rescues the movie since it recreates the sense of wonder that was present in the first hour but lost somewhere in the middle of all the chaos. Michael Giacchino's soaring, emotional score (which intentionally sounds lot like John Williams' compositions for Spielberg in the 80's) goes a long way in helping.

Being such a grab bag of plusses and minuses, when this ended I was sure I didn't like it (and reading this you're probably thinking I still don't), but that it's worth checking out despite its flaws should give you an idea how good it could have been, or maybe how badly I was rooting for its success. Spielberg's being credited as the producer but the extent of his actual involvement could been anything from being heavily involved on a day-to-day basis to just putting some money down and visiting the set once, so it isn't fair to single him out for what worked or didn't. That said, he did slap his name on it with a full endorsement and it's essentially a tribute to his filmography so it's hard to not walk away feeling its failings are somehow his fault, despite Abrams writing and directing it on his own. You also can't help but wonder why it didn't turn out as good as it could have been with all the tools and inspiration he had at his disposal. Super 8 works well enough, but in doing so only proves that past Spielberg casts a shadow too large for even he himself to escape.


Daniel said...

Great work as usual Jeremy! Can't say I hated this film and I got what JJ was going for but I just couldn't get over the fact that it felt like he pandering to the audience.

The first half is excellent but I don't know, it just lacked a connection with me. The 2nd half is just a mess all around.

The actors, like you said, really saved the film. Their performances, the child actors, were so honest and real that it made it incredibly enjoyable.

I really enjoyed the film they made, think more than I did the actual film.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Dying to see it. I like that angle of the kids making their own movie, reminds me of me and my friends making our own. I expect an uneven film that wont bore, but wont be "all that" Oh well...sad to here it could have been great, but still, it seems to me theres lots to be enjoyed with this one, the nostalgia factor cranked so high I mean...lets see. Great review Jeremy!