You’ve seen the teaser and trailer to Super 8, if not intentionally then cut up into commercial breaks every hour on the television hour. The plot is as straightforward as these things get. A train wreck in a small town frees a monster from twenty one years of military captivity. Its revenge on everything in proximity feeds us with broken glass, explosions, and helicopters. Of that which hasn’t been revealed, the creature design is superfluous. It’s the sincerity behind Super 8 that moves, the nostalgia for an earlier age that elevates it. Director J.J. Abrams can be a little uneven, mostly when lowering himself to the modern attention span, but just as with Star Trek he takes it away from its roots without serious offense. It might be the best movie you see this year, if Spielberg himself doesn’t blast back onto the scene with Tintin.
Or maybe you’ve seen this already. Super 8 is a 45 million dollar love letter to the late 70’s career of that industry legend, who seems credited as producer ahead of Abrams’ own Bad Robot company for no other reason than to hit the viewer, before anything, with the Amblin Entertainment seal of approval. All the following pieces are properly set in place. A carefully crafted mise en scene of toy culture and disco fashion color a small town suburbia, where families fractured or populated beyond control cause a shift in our coming-of-ages. Resisting the disillusionment of out-of-touch authority figures, a half dozen hopeful kids grow capable on their own naïve terms. They’re our last hope, if hope’s to be had.
Our main character resembles the boy from E.T., sound design occasionally throws back to the tone of a familiar spacecraft or malfunctioning droid. This is all collectible, though. Postcards that remind us of a lighter time for the adventure story don’t change the fact that, for the vast majority of Super 8, that’s not what we’re watching. A J.J. Abrams movie never has the kind of patience needed to craft a masterpiece on the scale of Close Encounters. They’re dependably satisfying to the broader audience with just enough sensitivity to silence the groans of the critical. A perfect balance cannot be obtained with a perfect movie and nobody understands this better than Abrams.
Yes, there are shots taken straight from the Spielberg catalogue but also a number of them re-establishing the legacy that Abrams will surely leave behind. Shadows projected against a shower curtain, strange noises from between the trees, the unmistakable music of Michael Giacchino…
It’s fun but faulty where it betrays the very sensibility it celebrates. For the first half hour I was strikingly disappointed. I know only from interviews that the overblown train wreck is meant to evoke the memory of the event these kids have, not what actually happened. I don’t buy it. A truck driven on the tracks causes every train car to be launched into the air and burst into mushroom pyrotechnics on landing. More insulting, the driver survives long enough for exposition. Did the kids imagine that too?
The script strains to establish way too much early on. In the first scene we’re hit with the drama of a boy who’s lost his mother, the father who doesn’t know how to raise him alone (and his occupation), a mysterious unwelcome visitor, the screwball chemistry of kids planning to make a movie (and it’s genre)… this hits us within three minutes and then bumps us to the class beauty who’s agreed to hang out with local nerds with no hint as to her motivation. There’s a wonderful twist that might have prompted her to work her way into the social circle of our protagonist but instead she objects to his presence early on.
It’s the quick editing and camera sweeps of a Mission Impossible where quiet suspense is called for instead. The payoff turns out to be well worth it, though. After this awkward assault, Super 8 is allowed to breathe. Development of the characters becomes an absolute blessing, especially when dealing with a star-crossed romance between Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning). The closer Alice is in proximity to our hero, the more he seems choked by a quickening heart. It’s a far easier appreciated aspect of Courtney’s performance than the oh-my-gods of running from danger, and Fanning’s reception to him is a stronger piece of work than any other actor provides here.
Maybe I’m just gushing at the discovery of a fresh talent with a promising career, something that I’ve paid special attention to since now Best Actress winner Natalie Portman, but the Fanning scenes make you guilty for not paying fifty percent more to see this film. Sincerity becomes worth that much when we’re being equally ripped off by post-processed 3D premiums. As her makeup artist on the horror zombie film-within-a-film, Joe is granted the opportunity to make contact with something more alluring than what lies beyond the stars. It’s the kind of deeply personal exchange that we will never, ever get from a Green Lantern.
Super 8 brings us face to face with its creature design towards the end. I won’t reveal the nature of it, but expect the same unconvincing CG animation that cuts Cloverfield off at the knees when its own destruction monger is viewed up close. In that film you might’ve let it slide for the spectacular aerial shots. In this film you just won’t care. It’s a momentary distraction before Super 8 reaches a crescendo that concerns itself with people who are much easier to get behind than Manhattan socialites.
There are scenes played during the credits. Rather than tack something on at the end for only the most curious, Super 8 leaves just enough time for people to get out of their seats and make it half way down the aisle. A welcome change, I spent the final few minutes in a theater standing up. On my feet I felt connected to the shared experience of cinema with the others around me, compounded by the nature of the sequence reminding us of the joy of filmmaking, both in the construction and appreciation of it, both in the successes and failures that we concern ourselves with every week here at Flixist.
Film study? Family night? First date? Super 8.