Thursday, June 9, 2011

Super 8

This Photo Might Represent The Best Scene In This Film

Elle Fanning as Alice and Joel Courtney as Joe in J.J. Abrams new film "Super 8".    Paramount

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
day, June 9, 2011

J.J. Abrams directs and writes the much-touted science-fiction adventure drama "Super 8", in theaters today a day ahead of a nationwide rollout in both the U.S. and Canada. 

Set in the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio -- its population rapidly shrinking by the day -- "Super 8" tracks a quintet of pre-teens during a bright, sun-soaked summer in 1979, budding filmmakers and actors looking to enter a film in a competition among Super 8mm camera enthusiasts.  They are directing a scene of romantic drama but will capture an event and feeling far more intense than they anticipated.

There's estrangement between two characters and their fathers -- one of whom plays a role in the bereavement of a family.  Joe (Joel Courtney) and Alice (Elle Fanning) are two of the five kids who do things that kids do during summertime.  There's a twinkle and discovery that develops between Joe and Alice, a wonderment and curiosity that "Super 8" follows for a little while before ceding its percolating love story to a visceral experience involving an exiled alien life form resembling Aliens Jurassic District 9 Predator that is the target of a mysterious US Air Force experiment or classified mission that somehow isn't fully explained in Mr. Abrams' script.  Other parts of the script, especially regarding some adult characters, aren't developed as strongly as they could have, rendering key players near-strawmen or cardboard ready to be knocked down.

"Super 8" is at its best when wonderfully capturing the vivid excitement of children enthralled by their dreams, passions and the power and freedom that a long hot summer beckons.  The kids' innocence is reflected in the sloppy, funny but sincerely-intended horror films and romances they make with crew director Charles' (Riley Griffiths) Super 8 video camera.  Their playful cinematic orchestrations are met in more than equal measure by the adulterated shenanigans of the government, that most imperious of figures, led by Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich).  Mr. Abrams adroitly captures scenes of adventure in a grand, spirited way on the big screen, with open-hearted and fully-enveloping Spielberg-like visions. 

Several scenes sparkle in "Super 8" but for all the sparkle (and sparklers), Mr. Abrams' latest is a hybrid of movies that salute the late 1970s and early 1980s yet does not distinguish itself in any discernable way from its predecessors.  At times "Super 8" plays like a highlight reel of other films including "Close Encounters", "War Games" -- the latter specifically in its kid-bullying shadowy government machine behemoth that has appeared in many films before as a fascist Big Brother emporium of evil.  At other times "Super 8" is a reminder of more recent films like "Jurassic Park" or the aforementioned "District 9".

"Super 8" has a strong musical quality, a sweeping scope, distinct shots and sunny "Sound Of Music" brightness.  There's a clear "E.T." feel, and with Mr. Spielberg producing here there's no accident that the young actor Mr. Courtney bears a notable resemblance to Henry Thomas, he of Mr. Spielberg's 1982 film.  But "Super 8" itself isn't an inherently classic film, though it celebrates film classics and imitators, and not in an unfamiliar manner.

"Super 8" is proud of its genre origins and unabashedly flaunts some of its appeal as an occasional comedy in numerous ways, including the kinds of character interludes and interactions with music that hark back to love of music (like the jazz trumpet bedroom scene in Mr. Spielberg's "Minority Report".)  For suspense sake, you know that someone or something is bound to interrupt what for any character might be a musical moment in heaven. 

While music is notable both in the film's rhythms and sound, at its heart "Super 8" depicts the love of movies, more specifically the love of moviemaking and how it is specifically the first love of the largely male film crew depicted onscreen.  Mr. Abrams manages to give the children who feature prominently an empathy and understanding often dismissed in summer celluloid of a larger scale where kids are concerned, and the performances of Mr. Courtney and Ms. Fanning speak volumes augmenting their characters as alive, fertile figures.  Ms. Fanning (even more brilliant in last year's "Somewhere") gives an adult strength and depth to Alice, and Mr. Courtney is brave, fearless and memorable as Joe.

An inverse poster of J.J. Abrams' new film "Super 8".    

Authority, instability, parent-child tension and forbidden fruit enrich "Super 8" with themes that often give the film more gravitas in isolated moments than as an overall movie experience.  Parts of Mr. Abrams' film are undeniably joyous and beautiful, but a whole lot of "Super 8" goes through the motions, telegraphing many of its punches almost from the get-go.  The emotional strengths that bind the cadre of eager-beaver film mavericks get lost, eventually becoming an expedient (and rushed) resolution which feels, for all of the busy, rambunctious happenings like an easy, unfulfilling way out of a story that needed a little more punch and a lot less formula.  Many of the film's adults are prominent yet mostly on the periphery, as if viewed from a child's point of view, and quietly internalized and observed.

After the incredibly good mystery and suspense die down in "Super 8" we begin to discover what is at the heart of a professor's secret.  There's a parallel story suggesting racial alienation and/or discrimination faced by one man who in an identifying manner declares in one scene that "he is in me and he is watching".  This particular man identifies with being the "other", it seems.  The man's quotation is earnest but the motivations of "Super 8" in depicting the metaphor feels ill-fitting, even exploitative, reminiscent of the utterly disingenuous aspects of "District 9", a film claiming to sympathize with those who endure racism daily by making its lead white character a tragic, transformed figure that the audience is supposed to feel sorry for because he is "trapped" in his "new-found skin" through "no fault of his own."  Thankfully "Super 8" doesn't go deeply down this road, but it does start to mark a path.

The otherworld figure in "Super 8" is one tied in to Joe's plight, for their struggles as this and many other films point out, are not so different.  If everyone needs hope and a home, everyone needs love to fill and enrich both.  Movies are but part of that feeling, that hope, and that love -- and movies, of which each are grand experiments in their own right -- can go horribly awry as the young children here can attest.  Indeed, Mr. Abrams utilizes movie posters, saluting horror-thrillers like "Halloween" and others but in a dual manner: to illustrate the substance of the type of film that Charles and his budding actors attempt to make, as well as the notion that the rite of passage, adulthood and the horrors that come with these may lurk just around the corner. 

Speaking of which, one character admits his true motivations in a good, revealing scene late on that marks the onset of adulthood and the bulldozing of naïveté.  "Super 8" makes this specific scene amusing but there's an undercurrent in it carrying deeper weight.  All in all, you can tell that Mr. Abrams' recalls his own childhood as clearly and certainly as Mr. Spielberg does his, and does so with confidence and the flair that a big summer film requires.

Like last year's
"Toy Story 3"
, "Super 8" is alive with vision and possibility but doesn't go all the way to the finish line.  In both films an emotional chasm grows progressively deeper and wider; more so in Mr. Abrams' film than in last summer's megahit.  The resonance of the former film's sentiments was unmistakable, whereas in "Super 8" sentiment and feeling rings hollow by film's end. 

"Super 8" entertains for just a short while.  About a third of the film reminds you of your joys and exhilarations as a youngster, when potential and idealism was limitless and adventure beckoned from around every corner.  Mr. Abrams' film makes several key missteps in its script and editing, turning fresh, wide-eyed exuberance into dour, grim and finally all-too familiar scenes that Hollywood blockbuster entertainments are made of.

With: Kyle Chandler, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Richard T. Jones, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills.

"Super 8" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.  The film's running time is one hour and 48 minutes.

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