STARRING: Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel
Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee,
2011, 112 Minutes, Directed by:
the last year, moviegoers have been bombarded with mysterious marketing for the
new J.J. Abrams feature, Super 8. The footage suggested an experience of
awe, sold with teasing shots of aliens, magically floating debris, and
slack-jawed actors reacting to unknown sights of indeterminate hostility.
It’s unfair to judge a film
solely on marketing though, this is Abrams after all - one of the more ingenious
architects of hype around. The man knows how to bait a hook, yet Super 8
is not the movie promised in the advertising. While tender, it’s not sweet.
While enigmatic, it’s not endearingly so. While wonderful, it’s also strangely
disappointing. Perhaps this whirlwind of reaction speaks to the chaos of
surprise, though I do wish Abrams permitted more of a peek into this world of
nostalgia and terror sooner rather than later.
The year is 1979, and young Joe
(Joel Courtney) is mourning the loss of his mother, now forced to deal with his
distant father, police officer Jackson (Kyle Chandler), on a daily basis. With
summer in full swing, Joe distracts himself by helping pal Charles (Riley
Griffiths) with his zombie movie, using his skills with make-up to get close to
his crush, co-star Alice (Elle Fanning).
While filming late one night,
the gang, including pals Cary (Ryan Lee) and Martin (Gabriel Basso), witness a
massive train accident, accidentally capturing the escape of a top secret
creature with their camera. With the arrival of military forces to search the
area, Joe and the crew hunt for their own answers to the mystery, witnessing
their peaceful town overturned by hostile outside forces.
As the opening titles read,
Super 8 is the brainchild of Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg,
collaborating on what’s revealed to be a sweeping valentine to a generation
raised on Spielbergian entertainment.
It’s difficult to nail the
precise foundation of Super 8, but it’s somewhere between
Close Encounters of the Third Kind and
Jurassic Park, with a light dusting of
E.T. and The Goonies in there
as well. While it takes inspiration from several Spielberg hits, Abrams is
primarily interested in recreating the feel of 1979, when kids rode bikes,
played with fireworks, communicated face-to-face, and basically tended to their
dreams without the meddling of parents.
There’s also a strong
undercurrent of teenage discovery, with Joe encountering the confusion of
parental loss, while enlivened by the presence of Alice. It’s a pre-Internet
look at the complications of youth, with Abrams taking special care to revel in
the eroding innocence, deploying the time period as a way to celebrate the
Spielberg milieu, but also to arrange his own extraterrestrial puzzle without
the burden of modern technology and empowered kids holding him back.
I won’t spoil the surprises of
Super 8, but a few matters should be discussed.
"Super 8 is not the movie promised in the advertising . . ."
Of primary importance is
Abrams’s way with his young cast, who present natural, credibly awkward
performances of depth, capturing an age of wonder as it smashes into urge.
Courtney is a real find, able to express himself in modest ways, playing a
character of fear and respect struggling to claim his courage in the name of
Expected smart-assery is
supplied by the kids, with fluid banter creating the highlights of the film, yet
Abrams is wise to keep on Courtney and his amiability, with the gentle
performance striking powerful emotional chords as Joe reflects upon the tragic
death of his mother. Equally valuable is Chandler, who supplies authority and
vulnerability in a difficult disciplinarian role. The cast is uniformly
marvelous here, making Abrams’s difficult job of providing realism in the midst
of sci-fi all the more easier.
There’s a creature running
around Super 8, and he’s one ornery fellow. The feature delivers
impressive intensity when it comes to imagining alien attacks, hitting
blockbuster heights as the mysterious beast works its way across suburban Ohio,
draining power and flinging appliances, working toward a classified goal.
If Super 8 has any major
fault, it’s with the execution of the invader, a creature that’s treated with
sympathy, yet spends most of the picture in a shadowy, destructive rage.
Gentleness is lacking here, along with a personality to attach to, making the
alien more about demolition than understanding. While this distance gives Abrams
free reign to stage impressive moments of astonishment, it also flattens the
Spielbergian feeling of wonder the feature leans toward.
Super 8 is a scary
movie, pushing away gooey indulgence to keep tension taut, a suspense that often
finds itself at odds with magical moments of reveal. It’s a complex tone that
isn’t always satisfying, but when the film locks into a moment, Abrams provides
a knockout punch. With blazing, glorious, cinematic lens flares. Of course.
Super 8 works as a time
capsule, a movie-going scrapbook, and a pretty nifty creature feature (making
good use of its PG-13 rating), though the final blend of elements lacks a tight
seal that keeps the film a consistent package of delights. With the curtain
finally pulled back, it’s interesting to inspect Super 8, finding such
directorial authority and summer movie adoration from Abrams, who avoids overt
imitation to shape something inventive out of his inspiration. It does the
miracle run of Spielberg’s early career proud, while reinforcing Abrams as a
gifted storyteller unafraid to bare some teeth, despite what the cautious
- Brian Orndorf