Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Super 8 (2011)

Director: J.J. Abrams                                    Writer: J.J. Abrams
Film Score: Michael Giacchino                       Cinematography: Larry Fong
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler and Noah Emmerich

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, director of the new Star Trek and Star Wars series, Super 8 is a love letter to films like Poltergeist and E.T. Set in the late seventies, it features a group of kids who discover something supernatural going on and are the only ones who will be able to stop it. There’s also an element of Alien as well as Predator here where the thing, whatever it is, doesn’t really make an appearance until well into the film. It’s the kind of suspense that filmmakers don’t use anymore and it’s incredibly refreshing. Lastly, the kids making the movie--hence the title of the film--is a tribute to a Disney TV movie called Mystery in Dracula’s Castle. All of that said, the film does labor under its own aspirations and never quite makes it out in one piece. But Abrams is a resourceful director and if there had been more input on the writing end the film might have fared a bit better. The special effects are good and, as always, Abrams uses them minimally and resourcefully, maintaining as much of the real settings as he can without resorting to CGI for everything--though the entire train wreck sequence was overkill.

The film begins in the aftermath of a funeral in the dead of winter. Joel Courtney’s mother died in an accident at a steel factory. Sitting outside, he watches his dad Kyle Chandler, a deputy sheriff, take Ron Eldard to jail when he tries to come inside. Four months later school is out and they are in the middle of working on Riley Griffith’s movie. He’s entering it in a competition and wants it to be as good as it can so he tries to beef up his zombie story by asking Elle Fanning to be in the film. But when they go out that night to the train station something happens and an entire Air Force train derails, nearly killing them all. Courtney had seen a truck drive onto the tracks on purpose, and the driver, Glynn Turman, tells them they can’t talk about being there or they will all be killed. Before they leave, however, Courtney takes a piece of the cargo, a strange, cube-like object. Courtney also saw something escape from the train and it’s roaming the countryside between the small towns in the area. Electronics from microwave ovens to car motors are all disappearing, people are disappearing, and dogs are running away. And when Courtney spends the evening at his mother’s gravesite, he sees it in the cemetery garage next door.

Noah Emmerich is the Air Force colonel in charge of the clean up. He knows what escaped from the train and is trying to catch it before anyone else knows. He’s also kidnapped Kyle Chandler because the deputy knows too much. And to top things off, Fanning has been taken by the monster as well. There’s an innocence to the film that reflects the seventies ethos Abrams was going for, but it loses something in the translation. In those films the great part about them was the kids being able to elude detection or capture in order to continue their quest. This film takes too much of a millennial spin by having them make impossible escapes, which diminishes the impact of what they’re doing. The rest of the film is built around relationships. The primary one is the love interest between Courtney and Fanning. There is also the relationship between Chandler and Eldard who both loathe each other. And finally there is the intricate relationship between the five boys in the group, one of whom is Gabriel Basso who was so impressive in The Big C but is given too little to do here.

Though it lacks what one would hope from this kind of homage, it can still be a compelling film in a nostalgic sort of way. Naturally the set up is far more interesting than the payoff because it’s very difficult to figure out an original way to end these sorts of stories. One only has to look at James Cameron’s The Abyss to know that. In terms of originality the film’s a definite failure, and so making an assessment of it’s worth has to be a personal one. The invocation of the past can be a good thing for some. I have to admit it made me smile in place. For others it will be a real yawner because it’s all been done before. I think I come down somewhere in the middle. I found it charming on the whole, more for the nostalgic value than anything intrinsic in the story or the camerawork, and the acting is solid and has plenty of B list talent to help things along. Super 8 is a valiant effort at capturing a cinematic time gone by, something Matinee attempted and The Artist absolutely nailed, but it never really lives up to its potential.

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