Friday, September 28, 2012

Retro Review: Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.  With the first episode of the J.J. Abrams-produced TV series Revolution making its mark earlier this month, here is a look back at Abrams most recent theatrical foray - and one of the best films of last year.


Imagine a world of youthful memories, evoking a certain place and time of cinematic innocence, now all but lost to future generations, where children played at make-believe in the suburban utopia of woebegone days and the buddings of first love are felt in the small town purity of kids caught somewhere between their first swear word and their first cigarette.  A place where adults were secondary, incidental even, and where monsters and aliens crept into our subconscious only to be made real by those purveyors of the era's newly born summer blockbuster machinations - a place of George Lucas and of Joe Dante and especially of Steven Spielberg.  This place of seeming cinematic incorruptibility, where escapist fare was met with a sense of childlike wonder and the daily box office take was, though assuredly important and quickly becoming moreso, not yet the be all and end all of making movies in Hollywood, is where J.J. Abrams takes us with his deceptively brilliant evocation of a simpler, kinder, more gentle cinematic world in Super 8.

Set in the early summer days of 1979, in an archetypal small town in rural Ohio, Abrams pays the greatest homage to his mentor and master Spielberg (though Spielberg's credit as producer may smack a bit of nepotism in a way) by giving his monster movie an aura of that time when Spielberg was still a filmmaker with heart and soul (a filmmaker evoking his own childhood dream world) while at the same time giving it that more-bang-for-your-buck style that has come to epitomize the directorial signature of Abrams' still young (one could even say still budding) career.  One could even go so far as to call this film an E.T. for a more jaded, more in-your-face and a much faster-paced generation of moviegoers - a less innocent generation of moviegoers if you will.  It is this blend - more sympathetic than Abrams usually makes out and less cloying than Spielberg, even vintage Spielberg can be - that makes the film work as well as it does.

After a brief prologue showing, in a very Spielbergian way appropriately enough, the loss of a wife and mother (a typically seventies factory where a sign stating how many days since their last accident being marked back down to one, a lone child sitting on a swing caressing the locket of his now dead mother) and the almost immediate shattering of the aforementioned cinematic innocence, Abrams sets his story rolling - and roll like proverbial thunder out of the gate it most certainly does.  We are introduced to a group of kids, barely on this side of pubescence, in the process of making a zombie movie (George Romero can be seen as an influence as well), via their titular super 8 camera, complete with the idea of cheap but wholly appropriate special effects (blowing up model trains and filming it on super 8 is pretty much the most accurate way of describing La Spielberg's own filmmaking youth) and stilted but again wholly appropriate acting.  We see these kids filming at a small train depot as a locomotive comes barreling past at a breakneck speed.

Once the train derails in the most spectacular of set pieces (Abrams certainly knows how to make his action go that extra mile) and our inevitable monster is set loose upon this unsuspecting small town America (shown, a la Cloverfield in quick shadowy spurts - making for the tension and inherent danger to be at a peak level throughout), and once the military swoops in and quickly becomes even a possible greater danger than the escaped monster they are not telling anyone about (and no one is digitally replacing guns with flashlights this time around Mr. Spielberg), Abrams movie kicks into high gear and we are shown the director who was only hinted at in the mostly awful Mission Impossible III (important only because it was what first showed what the director was capable of if let loose upon the big big screen of the cinema, with his daring-doo way of choreographing elaborate and convoluted action set pieces) and honed to an audacious bravura in his quite spectacular reboot of the dying Star Trek franchise.   The director who is quickly becoming something of an action-oriented auteur - and a Hell of a lot of fun to watch.

As for the cast, it is mostly populated by the kind of kids one would expect to find in such an homage.  Foremost among these kids are Joe, the town deputy's son and aforementioned lone child lamenting his loss, and Alice, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who seems to be in serious need of redemption from sins she carries with her that are not even her own.  Joe is played with a wide-eyed sense of wonder that does its own evoking of Henry Thomas' Elliott in E.T., by first-time actor Joel Courtney, while Alice is played by the quite disarming Elle Fanning (just thirteen but the veritable veteran of the young cast) whose perfect blend of youthful exuberance and adult-like sensibilities (much like her older sister, the young actress's eyes evoke both a naiveté appropriate to her age and a frank knowingness that belies that very same age) make for the most layered character in the film - and she comes off as any red-blooded young teen boy's fantasy girl hot, sassy and dark, and she can drive a car! (where were the girls like this when I was thirteen!?).  These two young actor's scenes together are the emotional high points of the film.  The way their attraction grows and their playful interacting (Fanning's cute way of stealing a kiss while in zombie make-up) make for the most charming of young romances.

In all reality, it is the simple and unaffected budding romance between Joe and Alice, as well as these kids' tempestuous relationships with their equally bewildered fathers (played by a stoic Kyle Chandler and a pathos-riddled Ron Eldard), and not the monster nor the military, that is the central core of this spiraling, sometimes batshitcrazy movie.  It is this side of Spielberg, the one seemingly long gone these days, that Abrams is paying homage to here, and it is this particular age (this critic turned twelve in the summer of 1979 and therefore am virtually the same age as Super 8's young protagonists) that makes it stick so personally for me - and let's face it, anyone who has ever grown up in the places evoked here and in the early works of that ever-present Mr. Spielberg.  It is also due to this subtle approach to the storytelling aspect of the film that when we finally get to our expected dénouement, it is not the monster Abrams focuses his camera on but the kids - the human aspect of the story.  In a way this ends up as something of a mixed bag of reactions come the fade to black and end credits.

Perhaps those of us looking for nothing more than the perfect action movie kicks will be left feeling a bit (but just a bit) disappointed as the layers of the film are peeled away, revealing each new reveal, albeit each one nestled inside stunning set piece after stunning set piece - and perhaps too those of us looking for pure summer blockbuster chutzpah and a balls out Michael Bay-esque finale that will theoretically leave every quasi-pubescent fanboy with a moist pair of jeans will end up feeling cheated by their own sense of imagined anticipatory self-rhetoric.  I do admit to a feeling of disillusionment once our intrepid monster is fully seen and fully realized and the tension is unwarrantly alleviated and we are left with a let down of sorts.  Perhaps though, what we are left with in this overly sensitized wake (and self-invented sense of moviegoing entitlement) is an emotional heft (and general warm fuzzy feeling - but in a good way) and a childlike fantasy that harkens back to those halcyon days (both cinematically and nostalgically) being evoked by Abrams in his loving homage to his mentor and master.  Perhaps, it is more than a mere monster movie.  Perhaps indeed.

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 06/10/11]

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