Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

Super 8 is a film that was made to invoke nostalgia for a simpler time, a time when amateur moviemakers could shoot their films on cheap 8mm cameras and Steven Spielberg, once one of those amateurs, was rocking the screen world with his late-'70s/early-'80s run of films that mixed thrilling adventure with grounded emotions. I mention this because I am not old enough to remember this time (I was born about 10 years too late). However, what Super 8, and writer/director J.J. Abrams, are smart enough to do is both play homage to Spielberg's classics such as E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jaws while finding its own rich voice, and reveling in the nostalgia of childhood innocence.

In a small Ohio town in 1979, a group of kids are shooting a zombie movie on a super 8 camera when a train crashes nearby. Soon the Air Force is in town commandeering the accident scene, and dogs, people, and appliances are beginning to disappear in droves. There was something mysterious on that train, but can these kids figure out what? Meanwhile, Joe (newcomer Joel Courtney) has lost his mother in a steel mill accident, has a chilly relationship with his father (Kyle Chandler) and is falling in first love with Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning).

The film builds excellently, almost relegating the sci-fi/mystery elements to the background to focus on the relationships between the kids and with their parents. These relationships feel genuine, in part thanks to the terrific acting and in part thanks to Abrams' smart script. Courtney is a natural talent, a real find who is able to hold the screen in all of his scenes. The other kids - played by Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills, Riley Griffiths, and Ryan Lee - are also fantastic, making their friendships real and easy while also acting the way kids making a movie would act, taking it seriously while still having fun. Chandler channels his famous Coach Taylor for his role, and Noah Emmerich is great as a hard-nosed military leader. But the real star of the show is Fanning, proving that serious acting chops run in the family with her nuanced, stunning performance. She should be breaking out with this one.

So is Abrams the next Spielberg? I personally don't like the term "next [insert name here]," since it implies that the original is gone or that the person earning the comparison doesn't have his own voice. As I said before, Abrams pays homage to Spielberg here but he does so with his own lens-glared voice. He's a master of creating relationships and emotional connections, and he never let's his monster distract from the characters. He also has his own sense of adventure, as evidenced in that astounding train crash, a moment that's truly awe-inspiring. Abrams is smart enough, though, not to let the effects become the film's centerpiece, unlike other recent blockbusters.

This isn't to say that Super 8 isn't without its flaws. The film's third act, in particular, feels a bit rushed, as though it was cut short in order to make the running time under two hours. And the film's monster bears a striking resemblance to another recent movie monster, though Abrams has taken the time to deny the connection. But as a whole, this works as a superb summer movie, and cements Abrams' status as a director who can deliver popcorn flicks with depth. A-

PS As for the Oscar buzz? I doubt a Best Picture nomination will happen now that AMPAS has introduced OCD-unfriendly new voting system.

PPS Be sure to stay through the credits, which feature The Case, the zombie film the kids are making.


Rachel [f.g.i.] said...

I totally agree with you on the bit about the third act feeling "rushed." The build-up was so well-crafted that the last 30 minutes of the movie turned out a bit ho-hum.

Jason H. said...

I didn't think it was necessarily ho-hum, but I agree that after such a well-done 90 minutes of build-up, surely we could have expanded the third act to allow for the film's final moments to make a much larger impact.