Saturday, June 18, 2011

FILM REVIEW: J.J. Abrams's "Super 8"

Let's get it right out of the way, shall we? Is this The Goonies meets E.T.? Yes. If the alien was as proactive as the creature in District 9 and it looked like the Decepticon from Transformers 2 with eight legs.
Let's double back. Super 8 has three main storylines: There's the tragically sad one about the main character, Sam, losing his mother in a factory incident and his sheriff father who isn't coping well as a newly single parent; there's the light and fun one about a group of boys who are on a mission to shoot their very own zombie film for a big-time festival with Sam's crush, who's their leading lady; and then there's the sci-fi action thriller one about the government cover-up of an escaped alien who's trying to get back home.
At each subplot's core is 15-year-old newcomer Joel Courtney (right), who did an impressive job of invoking Sam with heartbreaking sorrow, adolescent awkwardness, and fearless bravery. Countering his personality are his band of brothers, who say lines like "I think I'm having a heart attack...and I have a scrape," and defensively call each other "pussy" and "fatso." My favorite little rascal was the pyro slash future-stunt-technician Cary (newcomer Ryan Lee), who always seized an opportunity to blow something up.
Acting as a secondary character was the year they lived in: 1979. It added to their old school sensibilities, when stealing your dad's car was the rebel thing to do, painting model airplanes was hours of fun, the Walkman was considered "hi-tech," and kids sang love songs like "My Sherona" instead of profane dance songs about shaking your ass. The most important feature of that time though was the Super 8 camera and the freedom of creativity it gave budding filmmakers of all ages. It's the year Alien and Star Trek hit theaters, and the year that follows gave birth to Star Wars: Episode V—all of which were major film-lover inspirations. You'd probably think taking it back to a simpler time would make it boring, but that's where the alien subplot comes in.

Generally, viewers require an awesome-looking alien, a valid purpose for its motives, and a clearly defined villain. I thought the alien looked awesome—a little bit like a Decepticon from Transformers 2, but still awesome, especially when it crept up on you before it attacked like the creatures in Alien and Jurassic Park. My movie buddy pointed out something interesting. Director and writer J.J. Abrams clearly has a thing for unseen monsters that make rattle sounds and have underground lairs, which he made good use of in ABC's "Lost."

The alien's backstory was E.T.-like and even Paul-like, being stranded on Earth, hunted down by government agents, and longing to go home. Of course it wasn't as friendly as either of those aliens. It was a lot more proactive and learned from imprisonment not to rely on any human. I liked that it spoke through touch, but we didn't hear it—just like the Black Smoke. And I loved its spaceship, which broke up into tiny Rubiks cube sized squares as a defense mechanism—a novelty item that was designed in '74. And his method for collecting them was genius. His intelligence and advanced technology almost has me worried that he might return with an army to seek revenge. The real villain though was the army that imprisoned him and anyone that helped him. It would seem that in the 70s, the army was often the enemy, infringing on civil rights because of the heightened security during the Cold War and fear of the Russians.
Abrams did a great job of mixing the light fun scenes with the intense suspenseful sci-fi driven scenes, and the way he did it was by starting two plots from opposite ends and having them meet with a common thread in the middle. On the one side there was this alien's escape efforts and on the other there were these kids who figured out a way to make their Super 8 film even cooler, using real train crash footage. Watching the development of the government cover-up through their eyes—and their camera lens—enhanced the suspense and the mystery.
It also didn't hurt that Charles (Riley Griffiths), their demanding director, was actually very good for a 14-year-old. He had solid vision and clever ideas, naming a factory in his film Romero Chemical as a reference to the revered zombie filmmaker George A. Romero, and spouting any new film term he learned like "That's mint!" constantly, as if it were the Word of the Day. It was like watching a mini-Abrams. He knew a moneyshot when he saw one, and this film's best is the train crash. It was as hectic and chaotic as a battlefield. It was terrifying to witness these children's near death experience, and even without 3D it felt like you were running right alongside them. The scene was very well-acted and orchestrated.
The best performance—in a film without a single bad one—was definitely Elle Fanning's (Somewhere). She had the difficult task of playing an actress, which means tapping into two personas and convincing us of both. You were as amazed by her performance in their fledgling zombie film as they were. She can turn her emotions as on and off as her big sister Dakota can, but unlike Dakota, she doesn't remain lifeless afterwards.
All this praise of the children is not to say that the adults should be disregarded. While I wish there was more of Kyle Chandler ("Friday Night Lights"), who had one fight scene that proves he should be in more action/adventure films, I was more surprised by David Gallagher ("7th Heaven") who plays a convincing, pot-smoking Hippie (redundant?), and the hardly recognizable Amanda Michalka (Secretariat and Lovely Bones), who seems to have grown into a woman overnight.

Overall, I would definitely recommend seeing Super 8 for the action, the acting, and the alien. But I give you two points of advice:
1) Try to see it with captions—that's actually an option in some theaters—to catch the funny off-camera one-liners and
2) stay for the credits to watch the kids' final product. You'll feel as though you made it with them.

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