Jun 11, 2011

A Few Thoughts on... "Super 8"


There is no doubt that in the past few years we have wondered if J.J. Abrams is trying to be the next Steven Spielberg. Super 8 couldn't go the promotional route without hinting at the score from E.T. or even prominent featuring of the famous Amblin logo of Spielberg's company. It also left a whole slew of the 5 W's. In a sense, the trailer captured whimsy, adventure, and cinema in a way that has seem barren since Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are trailer.

In fact, few have captured the whimsy of childhood in the past five years. Robert Rodriguez has tried, oh how he has... but I doubt any offspring will hold Shorts on a pedestal for any other reason than to stare at a lesser Kat Dennings role. In fact, what kids are painted as realistic? Diary of a Wimpy Kid, maybe, but that's only with grandeur of puberty on it's side.
Where is the natural fun that has been missing from kid's movies?

I don't think Super 8 solves that mystery, but it does manage to be something else entirely. It takes a central cast of kids: Joe (Joel Courtney), Cary (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach Mills), Charles (Riley Griffiths), Martin (Gabriel Basso), and Alice (Elle Fanning), throws them into 1979, and sets them free to make a movie using a Super 8 Camera.
Towards the end of the film shoot, Charles gets the idea to film a train scene for his zombie movie (to add plot), and they witness a horrific train crash in which everything goes flying for probably five minutes. Cue in the Air Force, some weird supernatural occurrences, and you get the rest of this movie.

What makes this movie work is the ability to not play down to kids. This is a PG-13 movie, and so what if the kids say shit? They did it all the time in 80's PG movies. In fact, I doubt kids ever stopped saying shit. It's a small revelation to hear them cursing in moderation, while hoisting insults at each other's foibles. In fact, it seems to be above the average intelligence, most of these insults.

Like most of the town, they are on a quest to solve a mystery. However, to compare this to E.T. is to sell yourself short. Where the quest was to save an alien, this is a story to figure out what's going on without trying to get killed by either the monster... or the Air Force. In a sense, this is an ultimate fantasy film in that it teaches kids early on to fight the system, which I openly support.

I have enjoyed a couple of the other Bad Robot Productions in the past. I will admit that Abrams did a nice job on Star Trek, converting half my friends (and getting me to watch Wrath of Khan, something I don't regret) and making me creeped out by Simon Pegg as Scotty.
However, it was the Matt Reeves-directed Cloverfield that I most admired. There was something about the shaky cam approach to the monster movie that I loved. If anything, I went into Super 8 with small hope it would be the Cloverfield baby.
But this supernatural force is just as phenomenal. While the movie shows little resemblance to E.T., Abrams does manage to borrow a lot of timely camera techniques from Spielberg's classics, including the spareness of the monster on screen, which just amps the curiosity.
Abrams, I don't think, is a master of suspense. He, however, is a master of making an entertaining blockbuster in which he can restore my faith in the idea that movies of that caliber can be fun and original. I may hate movies made up of prominently kids, but I felt that this was a strong cast that manages to work well and bounce the humor off of each other so effortlessly.
I also just loved that there was some rooted homage to all things old school horror movies. If you eye around the various rooms, you'll see posters for Halloween and Dawn of the Dead along with a Dracula skull, Creature from the Black Lagoon figure, and zombie make-up. In a sense, this not only helps set the era, but also helps us understand some of Abrams' rooted influences in this movie, which manages to show, if vaguely. As an adamant fan of most of said references, it helped me connect with the kids before they rolled that Super 8 Camera, and I felt gave them more authentic passion.

This movie has the unbridled joy of being my new favorite Abrams-directed movie, as it manages to feature plenty of brilliant slow reveals, subtle text about growing up, and kids who have a passion (and a brain). Oh yeah, and there's plenty of use of lens flair, so watch out.
I don't love it because I connect it with anything Spielberg has done (to me, E.T. was a product of it's time and I just don't like it), but because it's essentially a really dark movie featuring kids. I'd like to assume this is up there with Gremlins as movies that will freak you out when you're young, and you'll appreciate the technical aspects as you get older. It captures what it's like to look into something scary and different and say "Until I get an explanation, I'm blaming the Soviets" (sorry, spoiler).

So, a strong applause for Abrams for taking aspects of things I love with tropes from lesser things and making it into one fun adventure. True, the trailer gave away more than I assumed, but the adventure and mystery was still strong enough to keep me engaged all the way through.

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