Monday, June 13, 2011

Super 8: Dreams of a Bygone Monster Movie Era

Super 8
Written and Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, and Noah Emmerich
Director of Photography: Larry Fong, Editors: Maryann Brandon and Mary Joe Markey, Production Designer: Martin Whist, Original Music: Michael Giacchino
Rated: PG-13 for a scary monster and explosions

            Growing up anywhere outside of the big metropolis, a child’s imagination can truly grow wild. Mine certainly did, and I spend plenty of days in a sandbox where I would be flying spaceships, searching for hidden treasures, or fighting gigantic monsters. This of course was aided by the films of Steven Spielberg, who knew how to make the fantastic seem rather personal. In films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the extraordinary was not just spectacle. It was a way to illuminate the ordinary as well.

            It also gave birth to a wave of filmmakers—some who understood his craft, others who just liked the aliens—that wanted to capture that same spirit of ambition, freedom, and innocence. The latest filmmaker to jump into that land is the notorious J.J. Abrams, best known for producing Lost and directing 2009’s reboot of Star Trek. Mr. Abrams certainly has the kinetics of Mr. Spielberg in bringing together spectacular special effects, but the question is does he have a heart as well? With Mr. Spielberg serving as a producer, Super 8 attempts to grab that nostalgic magic of the young ambition of children who see the sky at the only the beginning, and Mr. Abrams has attempted to collide his mystery-box world into that. It’s not an entirely successful film, and won’t sit on the cannon with E.T. or my personal favorite, The Goonies, but it shows a lot more heart than any blockbuster will this summer.
         The success of Mr. Abrams here starts right off with his focus on the young Joe Lamb, played by the young Joel Courtney. Joe has recently lost his mother, leaving him just to his father (Kyle Chandler), the town’s deputy sheriff, who never learned the first thing about parenting. Luckily, he’s got his friends like Charles (Riley Griffiths), the auteur making a zombie movie, along with a bunch of rag-tag middle schoolers. Then comes the wild card: Alice, played with exquisite perception by Elle Fanning, cast as “the girl” in the movie, and whose father may have caused the accident that caused Joe’s mother to die. While filming at an abandoned train station, Charles spots an oncoming train and rushed the scene (for “production value”), but Joe notices a truck running onto the tracks, and soon enough the train explodes in a dazzle of giant metal slabs falling from the sky, as the kids run in every which direction.
            That explosive sequence may be too spectacular for Super 8, and is just the beginning of Mr. Abrams’ ambition for spectacle overreaching the small scale stakes of his narrative. While we get to watch the kids shooting their movie, talk about the mystery, and perhaps adorably fall in love, we also follow the aftermath of the train, which turns out was an Air Force vehicle carrying a monster of unfathomable power. Following the Jaws checklist, Mr. Abrams never lets us see the monster in his early attacks, but he also throws enough special effects around that there’s no point for him not to show it, especially as the mystery comes full circle later, and the reveal is not to say disappointing, but certainly a non-factor.

            Thus, by the time Super 8 becomes a full-fledged action film we’ve lost sight of Joe and his pals, whose story seems almost derivative of the monster Mr. Abrams has unleashed, leading to a finale that goes for an emotional payoff, but never feels earned. The real payoff turns out to be The Case, Charles’ movie, which plays during the end credits and  is full of great laughs and gags.

            Mr. Abrams is certainly a talented filmmaker, and he flashes and dazzles his camera with lights and lens flares and constant movement. But Super 8 needs more of a personal touch, the one he shows promise in scenes with the kids, such as when Alice sneaks over to Joe’s house, and the two watch home movies of his mother. Mr. Abrams has that potential, but at times he’s too interested in his mystery box, in leading us down the rabbit hole, when we’d rather watch the imaginative one of Joe and his friends. So as we get up and close with big Mr. Monster, we lose focus on those who we actually care about. Early in the film, Charles tells Joe he needs a love story because he learned in a filmmaking magazine that audiences will care more when the monsters start happening. It’s a true statement, but it only works if we keep our focus on those characters throughout, a lesson Mr. Abrams seems to forget.

No comments: