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Film Review: Super 8

Super 8 (2011; Directed by JJ Abrams)

JJ Abrams may not be much of a film artist, but as an alchemist of entertainment, he’s practically unmatched right now. Even if there’s next to nothing about his productions that even resembles genuine groundbreaking originality, he makes films with verve, excitement and wit that recycle the cream of the pop cultural crop of the last three or four decades at a dizzying rate.

See, guys? This is why my parents won't let me turn on the stove!

I haven’t seen much of Alias and also missed his Mission: Impossible flick, but have been assured that both reordered the myths of the spy thriller genre with deceptive cleverness. Although the reins of Lost were mostly in other hands more interested in problems of moral philosophy than the fanboy Abrams, its humour, convoluted mysteries, and consistent intrigues carried his signature. His crackerjack reboot of Star Trek of two summers ago may have been the most gleeful, purely Abramsian thing he threw together yet, even if it was more flippant Star Wars cool than nerdy Star Trek insularity.

For sheer Abrams-ness, though, Super 8 takes the cake, the party favours, and the lion’s share of the punch while it’s at it. That it was painstakingly constructed in the media and the public eye as his most “personal” film (more for recalling youthful filmmaking than, you know, that whole alien monster angle) perhaps doesn’t hurt this impression. That the film itself is also a painstakingly constructed homage to vintage Steven Spielberg should hurt that impression, but oddly doesn’t. Spielberg’s own involvement as a producer and fellow story-crafter may have something to do with this, but this just deepens the meta-reflexivity already readily apparent. Super 8 is a reminiscence of real-world youth that melds so thoroughly with common filmic memories that any tenuous line between the two becomes erased. As if it had any right to divide them in the first place anyway.

The story is a surprisingly engaging one, considering it’s most stolen and re-adapted from much more beloved films, many of them made by Senor Spielbergo himself. It’s 1979 in small-town Lillian, Ohio (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and a sensitive, creative pre-teen boy named Joe (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother to a factory accident (elegantly communicated through the manual reset of an “Accident-Free Days” sign). His dad (Kyle Chandler) is an uncommunicative man’s man who also happens to be a sheriff’s deputy (Jaws again). He wants Joe to bugger off to baseball camp (The Sandlot? Not quite) so he doesn’t have to deal with the boy all summer, but this possibility disappears without the slightest trace. Instead, Joe and his gang of misfit buddies (Stand By Me) labour away their summer hours on a Super 8 zombie movie (Night of the Walking Dead, etc.), lead by the invariably bossy and demanding director Charles (played by Riley Griffiths, and probably a proxy for Abrams).

When Charles has his Merian Cooper moment and decides that he needs a love interest to grant some added sympathy to his detective protagonist, he, of course, asks the prettiest girl in his orbit, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), to play the wife role. She turns out to be a natural stunner as an actress, which must surely have something to do with her using her troubled home life with her alcoholic dad (Ron Eldard) as motivation. As the ragtag production team (lovestruck Joe in particular) gawks at her riveting performance (one of many unexpected great moments in this film), a train thunders by the isolated station they’ve chosen as a location, only to be suddenly and spectacularly derailed by a pick-up truck on the tracks (The Fugitive). After a five-alarm crash of smashing, careening, exploding train cars that grinds on for eons (one is reminded of the endless tumbling brontosaurs in Peter Jackson’s King Kong), the boys (and girl) discover that the truck was driven by their science teacher (Glynn Turman) and that the train belonged to the Air Force and carried some top-secret shit, indeed. They speed off just ahead of the arriving military authorities (E.T.), scared totally shitless and vowing not to say a word about what they’ve seen.

Sure, it's beautiful, but your town is still pretty fucked up, isn't it?

As they continue their film and have various hushed conversations concerning that which they pledged not to have hushed conversations about, weird things predictably start to happen. All of the town’s dogs run off, only to be found counties away. The power flickers on and off constantly and electronics start to disappear (The Day The Earth Stood Still). People start to vanish, including the sheriff and a gas station attendant in a sequence of terrific suspense (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). The Air Force jerks, especially Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), stymie Joe’s cop dad in his quest for information (Jaws again), and at least one alarmed housewife blames the Soviets for the whole damned mess (Red Dawn). Meanwhile, the antipathy between Joe and Alice’s dads keeps them apart, the mystery deepens, things get weirder and more serious, the town evacuates, a stoner helps them out, war zone, freaky alien, so forth and etcetera.

No Abrams devotee can be surprised that the enigmatic mysteries at the plot’s core either go unresolved (we never do find out what the deal was with the dogs, for example) or are resolved pretty much exactly as you expect them to be. There’s also lots of perfectly natural acting but not much very good acting besides Alice’s aforementioned scene. The kids are all gloriously unaffected, Emmerich is nasty but dull, Eldard is heartfelt, and Chandler is stuck with the square-jawed American hero role that he tends to do a better job at upending than merely aping. The suspense, action, and spectacle scenes are very well orchestrated, if not too unique; in addition to the gas station sequence, there’s an attack on a military prison bus that echoes The Lost World, and a climax of overdone wonder that is such a direct rip-off of Close Encounters, down to Michael Giacchino’s surging score of John Williams-level unsubtlety, that surely Spielberg must have skipped the set that day to avoid become nauseous from the overdose of flattery.

What works best, however, is the simpler stuff, the interactions of the young friends as they deal with the challenges of their silly little movie (which we see over the end credits, and is giddy and goofy in the best no-budget home filmmaking way), their parents, their feelings, and their relationship to each other. Oh, and also with the dangerous unseen monster on the loose, and the full force of the military-industrial complex. Just another summertime buddy flick, in that way.

JJ Abrams, as always, pays full homage to his influences and layers as many genre standbys as he can overtop of those influences, but his humanity never gets lost in the meta-glut. For all of the cleverness and epic scope at play here, there’s a genuine core of joy and delight at the possibilities of film and the headiness of youth at the centre of Super 8, and that can overcome any number of monsters, mysteries, and explosions.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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