Thursday, June 9, 2011
Review: "Super 8"
"Super 8" is nostalgia filmmaking. It is a pretty self-conscious attempt by Generation Xer J.J. Abrams to recreate the sort of movies he fell in love with as a kid -- specifically, the early films of Steven Spielberg.
The fact that Spielberg, a Baby Boomer, served as executive producer of this movie has the potential to turn the entire endeavor into a massive exercise in narcissism. The musical score by Michael Giacchino even seems composed to mimic the trills and crescendos of John Williams, who's scored every Spielberg film.
And yet, even as writer/director Abrams seems bound and determined to follow a template of another's choosing, "Super 8" still has a sprightly life of its own. If it deliberately recalls films from the 1970s and '80s -- "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and "The Goonies" especially -- then it also powerfully evokes its own distinct sense of time and place.
The centerpiece of the story is a gaggle of kids who seem less written for the screen than conjured out of memory from 1979. They talk, look and act like 13-year-olds stuck between the traditional upbringing of the 1950s and the dawn of the pop culture information age.
Much mystery has surrounded the plot of "Super 8," although after watching it that shroud seems silly and unnecessary. Any halfway cognizant filmgoer will guess what the secret is just a few minutes in.
The movie's appeal is less what it does, and more how it goes about doing it -- with heart, imagination and genuine emotional attachment.
The set-up is that a group of boys are filming a zombie movie in small-town Lillian, Ohio. It's been an off-and-on project for the entire school year, but now that summer's here director and ringleader Charles (Riley Griffiths) wants to finish in time to enter in a Cleveland amateur film festival. He also stumbles upon the brilliant idea of inviting Alice (Elle Fanning), the pretty rebellious girl from their class, to play a role.
Charles is always mouthing off about needing "production value" in his movie, so they all sneak out at midnight to shoot at the train station with a locomotive roaring by. Except, the train derails -- in a spectacular, heart-grabbing sequence that makes the train scene in "The Fugitive" look tame -- setting off a wave of mysterious and alarming events.
Without giving too much away, here are some snippets:
One of their teachers is involved, and they learn more about his dark past beyond his habit of confiscating contraband from students and never giving it back.
A small army of Air Force soldiers gradually take over the town, for reasons they claim are benevolent but increasingly are not.
Eventually, the entire town becomes a war zone and the kids are caught up in the middle, trying to solve the riddle and keep their necks.
The main character is sort of in the background for awhile, but eventually Joe (a terrific Joel Courtney) emerges. He's a shy kid who builds models and does the makeup for Charles' movie, and is flabbergasted when the exotic Alice seems to return his attention.
Joe's relationship with his father, the sheriff's right-hand-deputy, is strained by the recent loss of his mother in an accident at the steel foundry. His dad (Kyle Chandler) wants him to go to baseball camp for the summer, in an obvious ploy to get the boy out of his hair. But when things go south in town, Joe's dad learns how to step up.
I'm still sort of amazed at how much I liked "Super 8," since I pretty much knew in advance everything that was going to happen. And it's a shame that the other boys in the group -- ably played by Ryan Lee, Zach Mills and Gabriel Basso -- never really get fleshed out.
For a retread, "Super 8" has plenty of snap.
3 stars out of four