Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In Theaters: Super 8

Super 8 poster and IMPAwards link
Super 8 is J. J. Abrams’ exploration of the territory first surveyed by Steven Spielberg, with the master’s blessing. It’s a story about growing up, being creative, and dealing with past traumas and tribulations, and also about alien invasions and government conspiracies. Despite it clearly belonging to the Spielbergiana subgenre, the film is more than just a pastiche, working as a surprisingly tight and effective thriller while not neglecting the human element either. It scratches an itch that a lot of movies haven’t in a while, but even if you’re not someone for whom E.T. was a defining part of your childhood, there’s a lot to admire.

The film takes place in the year 1979, in a small town called Lillian. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is a boy recovering from the sudden death of his mother, and as summer dawns he and his friends are working on making a zombie movie for the upcoming Cleveland Super 8 Film Festival. The project is directed by bossy wunderkind Charles (Riley Griffiths), who has decided to bring in a love interest for the hero, to be played by Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning.) While shooting scenes at a train station, the kids witness a catastrophic crash, which they happen to catch on film. They flee from a group of Air Force men who seem determined to cover up what’s just happened, but bizarre events start to plague the town afterwards. The power blinks on and off, dogs run away, and people start to vanish. It becomes clear that there was something in one of the train cars, something that’s gotten out and is roaming the streets, and Joe and his friends may be the only people who can begin to put together what’s going on.

Making a serious (or just serious enough for summer) movie about children is a dangerous prospect. Rounding up good child actors is always hard, and the failure of one in this film could easily have compromised things. But the protagonists come off as authentic both in what the script has them do and in how they do it. They’re at the age where full adolescent awkwardness has not quite set in, but they’re starting to notice the opposite sex and be insecure about their social status, and the script captures both their tunnel vision (once they’ve gotten away from the wreck, Charlie starts thinking about it as potential production value for his movie) and their timid interactions with the world around them. Elle Fanning is especially good, particularly since she’s playing a good actress; one of the big surprises is that in their dopey super-8 epic, Alice turns out to be a natural performer, and seeing Fanning work on both levels is impressive.

The film itself is a two-tiered affair, and one of the tiers is the sci-fi/thriller action which most viewers will be focusing on. And it is a tense, scary movie; heavy on the jump scares, to be sure, but Abrams mostly plays fair with them (if he cheated I didn’t catch it) and they are startlingly effective. A sense of danger starts to grow around everyone, everywhere, and at no point is it clear that anyone is safe. The mystery is tantalizing, though some may not be satisfied with the explanation/resolution at the end; there’s not a lot of exposition, and time doesn’t permit much of an infodump, so a couple of loose ends still dangle.

Abrams isn’t just out to make us solve a puzzle, though. The very first shot of the film is the steel mill where Joe’s mother has been killed (grimly resetting its days-since-an-accident count), and her death isn’t just a Disney plot device; it looms over the rest of the movie, over Joe and his father, the deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler), and over Alice and her father (Ron Eldard), a poor alcoholic whose relationship with Alice borders on abusive. To reveal how this interacts with the main story would require giving away much of the mystery, suffice it to say an unusual and fascinating thematic parallel is achieved.

As near as I can tell, this picture doesn’t miss a beat. It’s a genuine original in spite of being a genre homage, and has an energy level and tension that builds to a fiery climax. Do we get all the answers? No, but a catharsis and closure is achieved nonetheless, and something truly remarkable takes place. It’s nice to see a sense of wonder in science fiction movies again, and Super 8 delivers that expertly.

Written and Directed by J. J. Abrams

Grade: A

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