the REVIEW: SUPER8

SUPER 8 is exactly what this generation needs.

This is a coming of age movie lament to Spielberg, a hybrid of Close Encounters, ET, Jaws, Goonies and maybe even Jurassic Park. J.J Abrams has, in my opinion, been a long-time successor to the Spielberg directors chair, a product of the school of Blockbuster, Alien fascination, score bending cinematic pleasure that Mr Amblin does so well.

It’s an endearing if not a little gushing tribute from Abrams and from the off with the ET silhouetted Amblin indent that precedes Abrams’ Bad Robot  before the movie, it’s the first of a series of reminders that Super 8 is everything a Spielberg directed movie was decades before. (They’re even starting to look like each other!)

J.J is no stranger to recreating the old for a new generation and its this nostalgic passion which has served him well so far . He’s a geek, the best kind who is openly sharing his admiration for the films he loves and allowing the audience who share his nostalgic fondness and a new generation to fall in love with the experience of just kicking back and enjoying the spectacle. LOST started out fantastically and had a good run, say what you will about the ending, it is perhaps one of the most intriguing and best dramas to hit the small screen this decade, Star Trek, his first feature since Mission Impossible 3, was tremendously brilliant – from cast to score it was high-octane entertainment of proportional quality that cinema needed in lieu of power induced comic book heroes and book adaptations. King Kong albeit another rehash of the original is  probably another template for a lot of Spielberg’s 90s hits (e.g Jaws, Jurassic Park) reintroducing the undeniable brilliance of a story about the fear of the unknown and incomprehensible in the cinema.  Super 8 gives Abrams a chance to show his favourite teacher just how much he was paying attention in class.

Story (Spoilers I’m sure)

Its 1979 in the small town of Lillian Ohio and 13-year-old Joe ( a gorgeous début if not familiar face in Joel Courtney), is about to embark on an unexpected adventure during his summer holidays (great timing) with his group of friends. Its his first summer without his mother and perhaps the beginning of many more with his estranged father and town Deputy, Jackson (Friday Night Lights Kyle Chandler).

Joe’s time is predominantly and not unbelievably (for a child in the late 70s) spent painting models and helping his bossy friend Charles (brilliant Riley Griffiths) on a zombie film he’s entering in to a competition. When Charles organises a late night shoot with Joe and their other friends / crew / cast members including the enchanting girl next door and Joe’s crush, Alice (Elle Fanning), the kids set up shop by a railroad to film a scene for the movie, all part of Charles’ insistence that it provides ‘production value’ that will stand him in good stead in the competition. It’s not long however that Charles gets the money shot he’s been pining for when an oncoming train speeds past and he has his friends scrambling to capture the moment on his super 8 camera. The story takes a leap when Joe, part art director and at present sound man, sees a truck speeding along the tracks in the direction of the train causing a spectacular crash and derailment forcing the group to abandon shooting and run for cover.

A brief encounter with the truck driver and a chilling warning to speak never of the incident they have all witnessed both confuses and spooks them and it’s not long  before the ‘US Forces’ arrive and begin their a hostile take over of the small town.  The kids only speak of the incident between themselves but its obvious among the electrical objects, dogs and people who go missing (including Alice) that something otherworldly came out of that train wreck.

I should mention at this point that the kids manage to grab their recording of the whole thing, but the actual Super 8 relevance is lost on this film until the end. In fact the footage isn’t mentioned or watched until the final act, pointless really when Abrams allows for quick glimpses of the alien at opportune moments via reflections and through the trees.

Now it’s not the best movie of its kind, I think its been established that Spielberg has kind of, done this movie  and done it better. Also Super 8 comes across as being a film of two halves without really merging or concluding about either. It starts off as a drama about the estranged father and son in the aftermath of loosing their loved one and dips in and out of a story essentially about the two finding out just how much they need each other in the face of a disaster. That story is good on its own and  all heart in the beginning, but its play out is weak and irrelevant come the second act of the movie because its clear that Joe has sought solace in his friends, and is seemingly more well-rounded than the rest of them. There are some lovely scenes between Joe and Jackson that have the measure to really drive home the need for family but Kyle Chandler’s proven ability as the no-nonsense superb father and father figure in the FNL series is undermined here,  the determination a parent has to protect his child (like Tom Cruise does in War of the Worlds, or Bruce Willis does in Die Hard 4 and Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson seem to do a lot) is lost on this film and sadly reduced to a shaky sub-plot for Chandler.

On the other hand Super 8 is all about the monster. Abrams is all about the monster isn’t he? the mystery, the quick glimpses and the distant cries of the…monstaaaaaaarrrrgh. It’s a factor of his I do like. Like in LOST it was all based on what we think we saw but couldn’t quiet comprehend or, in the case come season 3 4 5 6 7, want to. The production value (ha…its an in joke if you haven’t seen the movie guys) is expectedly high. The train crash early on is quite the spectacle, and the full on exposure of the monstarrrrrgh, is acceptable. I only wish Abrams’ monsters didn’t disappoint me so much.

The mystery and intrigue preceding and just after the crash continuously pays homage to Spielberg. However it’s not until after the dragged out post-crash sequences, a point in which the film really should have delved in to a stream of chaotic events, that the ambiguous actions of the military begin to take action, forcing the townspeople in to quarantine and telling them nothing in the process.  This is the moment that, like in E.T or even the Spielberg co-written Goonies, should have been the beginning of an adventure ridden expedition for the children to get to the bottom of the hostile takeover. However when it does happen its all a little too late in the game and here lies the problem. What on earth were they doing all this time…what have I been watching and why? Key points are never explored or worse, explained and when they are its rushed. Why is this ‘thing’ here?, What the hell did their science professor have to do with its release? why is it taking innocent people if all it wants to do is ‘go home’? what on earth is that space rubik’s cube all about…we find out but what is its point? it never really shows Joe the way to the lair but we’re expected to believe he deducted this little clue early on? What exactly happened to Joe’s mum in the factory, why is Alice’s father a drunked. Why is Joe’s father a Jack-ass? Also where on earth are the other kids parents? So many plot holes and little done to conclude and explain anything. Having said that when the action kicks in to gear its done brilliantly. Kids out-smarting the adults and escaping military hold to find their friend and save the town, hijacking cars and breaking in to empty schools. Then there is finding the monster’s lair. It’s all such a cinematic spectacle that you wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.

Unlike ET these kids aren’t in the presence of an alien that is lost and vulnerable. We never get to build a relationship with said monster because we don’t even know what it is. It’s also kind of killing people, so the empathy we are expected feel when the group come across some top-secret archive footage of the alien’s capture and a rushed subtext that all it wants to do is ‘go home’  becomes void. 

Everything visually screams Spielberg nostalgia in Super 8, from the intrusive close-ups on characters faces as they watch the skies, the safe suburban streets and open planned kitchens full of siblings and chaotic, realistic dialogue in the background of Charles’ house, to the eerie glares across camera that flash in the corners. In essence the character of Charles whose bedroom is adorned with film paraphernalia, some of which I bet were homage to Spielberg all of which I missed,  is probably what Abrams’ was like as a child and the character of Joe is perhaps what Abrams’ thought someone like E.T’s Elliot would be if he were a childhood friend. It’s his overall ability to use the children as the driving force that perhaps links him best to his predecessor though.

All the kids are stellar in this film.  They’re smart, articulate but not intimidating (you know like Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osmont were) they’re the kind of kids who have conversations about nothing but what everything they do together is important. Here lies the best relationship and embodiment of a Spielberg kids movie. Elle Fanning gets better at this acting malark every film she does. I thought she was amazing in Benjamin Button and enchanting in Somewhere, she’s definitely one of the best things about Super 8. Unbelievably this is Joel Courtney’s debut on the big screen but he takes the helm as memorably as Sean Astin did in Goonies or Henry Thomas did in E.T. Riley Griffiths as Charles has the characteristics of a director down pat in this film, his comic timing is perfect and his presence carries throughout the film like Jeff Cohen’s Chunk did. The other comparison though not fair but wholeheartedly complimentary are Ryan Lee’s hilarious character as the pyromaniac Carey rings a bell for the child on the edge delivery Corey Feldman provided, where as Zach Mills (Dr Parnassus Wonder Emporium) and Gabriel Basso (Big C) are the perfect solid odd ends to this group of wonderfully gifted children. There is one scene when filming begins by the railroad that these kids delivered the biggest laughs of the film. Like Goonies they each have their own endearing qualities that made me wish to be a kid again. 

Now the one thing that can really make or break a movie is the score. I am 100 percent all about the soundtrack of a movie. I’m that person who downloads the soundtrack of the movie and listens to it like any normal pop album. Michael Giacchino’s LOST soundtrack whipped me up into such a state that I knew this film would benefit from his contribution. Just like John Williams scores are synonymous with Spielberg films, so is Giacchino’s with Abrams’.  It was exactly as I expected, beautiful, subtle, and tear duct attacking. I can not put in to words just how much the score is as important as the story, this one subtle but engaging all the same can perhaps be likened more to a James Howard score than Williams.

All in all this film is a brilliant watch, though the flow and story arcs are inconclusive and underdeveloped, I love J.J Abrams. I think he’s a wizard of film all by his own merits and having seen the majority of his small screen produces and his ability to tell a story and keep the audience intrigued season after season is no mean feat. Its only now that he’s being allowed to recreate whatever got him in to film and TV in the first place, everything he’s contributed on television has paid off and its clear that he’s enjoying the freedom to join the big boys in the blockbuster club. If he does anything well its telling the audience a story with pictures, and judging by Star Trek and Super 8 it can only get better. With Spielberg as his mentor it will only get better:

[Super 8] is a film that reminds fans of movies from the last two generations why they used to love going in the first place, and hopefully shows future generations just how great storytelling and dynamic visuals can combine to make a fully legit summer movie.

Exactly what I was trying to say.

2 thoughts on “the REVIEW: SUPER8

  1. Pingback: REVIEW: Super 8 | Squarise
  2. I wanted to love this film, but despite all its good intentions and its heart, in the end the film was just a homage to Spielberg but had nothing new to offer.
    Still, a lot better than your average blockbuster, but from a duo like Spielberg and Abrams, I was expecting a bit more…
    Here’s my review http://wp.me/p19wJ2-mh

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