Thursday, June 16, 2011

Super 8 Review

Super 8
Directed by J.J. Abrams 
Released in 2011

I have not written any movie reviews for almost a year now. It was a pastime I loved but, well, let's just say things got in the way. One of those things was making not one but two movies myself, working with a group of other talented filmmakers my age. I saw Super 8 with these friends and, alas, I am back.

Super 8 loves the art of film, and anyone who shares the same passion will love this movie. The title itself refers to the affordable 8mm film cartridges that fueled the amateur films of young filmmakers, many now accomplished artists themselves. J.J. Abrams, the director of Super 8, clearly spent his childhood committing his fantasies to film, and it is commonly known that his mentor, Steven Spielberg, did the same. Quite fitting then, that in Abrams' attempt to create the E.T. of his time, the master sits besides him in the producer's chair. Abrams emulates the tone and aesthetic of Spielberg's early films, and does so while adding his own (sometimes literal) flair. 

The film opens in rural Ohio, 1979. The date is never explicitly mentioned but you will definitely catch it with the liberal references to "My Sharona", the new Walkman, and Three Mile Island. Young Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother in a tragic accident and is now under the solitary care of his distant father, the deputy sheriff of the town, Jackson (Friday Night Lights' Kyle Chandler). A fortunate distraction presents itself through his friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths) and the Super 8 zombie film he is making with his friends. They film a risky nighttime scene by the railroad tracks when a traumatic crash occurs, letting loose a secret government project. The army sweeps in and tries to cover it up but the kids luckily caught it on film. Extraterrestrial mumbles crescendo, leading to an explosive symphony by the last third of the film. 

And the perspective stays in the eyes of the children. In a move that surely concerned the studio execs behind the funding of this picture, Super 8 focuses on its young actors, none that well-known. For a sci-fi film set as a summer blockbuster, that is a risky move (and one that did not totally succeed from gross reports so far). However, Abrams made the right artistic choice. The banter between the youth crackles, consistently witty and grounded to the age of the characters. Cary (Ryan Lee), the pyro-cameraman, steals every line as the immature, garrulous adolescent we all knew. His lines are fewer than other characters but you will remember each wise-cracking remark. The other characters probably fit a mold of someone you know or used to know: Preston (Zach Mills) acts tough but lacks the backbone when tested, and the lead actor of Charles' film, Martin (Gabriel Basso), tends to break under pressure. Such lack of facility reveals the vulnerability of adolescence, while also providing a humorous venue to display such naivety. So, when the surrounding state turns to bedlam, the natural responses of a teenager - liberal (though PG-13) profanity and comical disbelief - are thrown around, which, while immature out of context, totally fits the characters.

And the chaos sure looks good. Abrams nailed an attractive, rich aesthetic with Star Trek, and, while there are less colors to work with this time around, he and cinematographer Larry Fong (who worked on stunning works like 300 and Watchmen) breathe life into such a banal setting. The image affords a greater clarity than most other films today, and reveals the finer details of both the characters and the perfect time capsule of a town they found to film at. Dolly and crane camera movements dominate over the handheld style of that other recent alien invasion movie District 9. The cacophonous train crash mixes computer animation and setpieces deftly well, creating ultimate carnage while preserving reality. As the children run through a deserted town later, with only tanks and guns blasting all around them, we see the expanse of their environment:  there is no green screen and the old-school approach to Hollywood action lives on. It is classic Spielberg, and clearly Abrams is learning from the master. 

No one remembers ET for any action scenes, however. While Super 8 is a different beast, one that features destruction prominently and more than ably, it does not let the visual eye candy become the crux of the film. Abrams clearly aims for a childhood parable the same way Steven did almost 30 years ago. Joe is as alien to his father as the mysterious creature outside. He finds comfort in the misfits who run around in zombie makeup, and his father does not agree with his son's choices. The dad downright condemns any interaction with Alice (Elle Fanning), the dream girl Charles hooked to play the female role in his film. Turns out her father has an unfortunate history with his own family. But the Montague-Capulet flame of tension burns stronger as love. Alice may have the looks to attract the guys but she bears the emotional scars of a loveless past. Joe understands her, and the burgeoning romance evolves maturely and nary a gimmick. Elle Fanning scales taller dramatic heights than her sister did in Spielberg's own 21st century alien film, War of the Worlds, and displays so much potential for an excellent career to follow. Joel Courtney - without any previous acting credentials in Sophia Coppola films unlike his counterpart - shines as the cute, sensitive protagonist. He cares about his friends and sees the good in the world, and Courtney achieves the delicate pathos the role requires. Much like Henry Thomas as Eliot in ET, a newcomer was chosen for the main role, and this tactic succeeds to preserve such unadulterated innocence in his character.

The coverage of the father and son relationship lacks consistency, but the payoff works despite a missing link in their dynamic bond. Not only does Joe find love in a girl of his dreams, but in the solemn man he never connected to in his life. Kyle Chandler delivers in the emotional intensity of a man on a mission to connect. His son sees the good in him that his sandpaper heart has concealed for too long. Joe's final "test" will prove his beliefs, and his father is there to grasp what he has been missing for so long. Over the emotional interchange, and the whole rest of the film, exists Michael Giacchino's beautiful score, reaching levels of John Williams-esque opera in broad shots, while still resorting to that delicate solo piano known from Lost in the most intimate scenes. Giacchino has, unarguably, been a main factor in the emotional resonance of any film or television show he has touched. 

Super 8 exposes the creature behind all the carnage in due time, but it should be commended for revealing the alien we all harbor. We all carry our passions that seem ridiculous to others. Above all, the level of time spent studying, watching and visualizing the art of film puts it at odds with other activities many deem more important. Yet film, the language Abrams and so many of us speak, communicates truths unlike any other medium. Its prevalence grows while the influence remains intact; the visual fidelity and means of distribution in 1979 are lightyears from today's benchmark but the connection remains the same. It is rather perfect I saw this film with those I created alongside as well. We saw each other in the characters on-screen. We had a back-talking, know-it-all Cary. The butt of jokes in our own Preston. And, as I was reminded more than once, the bossy, idealistic director seeking the best "production values" in myself.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars out of 5