Monday, June 13, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

     From the moment J.J. Abrams' Super 8 was announced there were no illusions as to what it was supposed to be. Super 8 was conceived and constructed to be a throwback to not just the summer blockbusters of the early 80's, but specifically to the early works of Steven Spielberg. On this level Super 8 is an overwhelming success. Abrams is clearly intimately familiar with these films, and loves them unabashedly. His film is the cinematic embodiment of nostalgia. The more time you spend with the film, however, the more you realize that nostalgia alone does not a good movie make. There is an eerie hollowness to Super 8 that keeps it from joining the ranks of the summer classics it so desperately wants to be.
     The film centers on a young boy named Joe and his friends during the summer of 1979. The boys set about shooting a zombie movie in hopes of entering it in a local film festival. In order to fill the crucial "female zombie" role they recruit Alice, a young girl Joe may or may not have a crush on. One night while shooting a sequence at the local train station something goes horribly wrong. The next day the town is overrun by millitary personnel and the townsfolk soon realize there is something distinctly non-human roaming the streets of their fair village. As people start to go missing, Joe and the gang realize they may have inside information on what exactly is terrorizing the town. If this doesn't sound like the plot of a long lost Spielberg film, I don't know what does. On paper, Super 8 just sounds perfect. A story that harkens back to the days when people were really discovering the magic of effects-heavy, big-budget cinema, a director with proven abilities and a knack for visual flair, and "The Beard" himself in the producer's chair. But it doesn't take long to realize that a movie so involved with showing how great and exciting movies used to be has a hard time finding an identity of it's own.
     One thing that Super 8 pulls off extraordinarily well are the action sequences.
As in the Spielberg films it emulates, there is a lot going on within the frame. Unlike more modern cinema you aren't forced to focus on one aspect or another through tight editing. The camera backs away from the action a bit and allows you to see exactly how the world of the film looks. You are free to explore the frame and find where the action is happening for yourself. This is one thing that has always set filmmakers like Spielberg and De Palma apart from the bunch. They give the audience a real understanding of the space the characters inhabit which pulls us deeper into the world of the film and makes it feel bigger, even if we aren't able to articulate why. This is definitely something that has been missing from movies for a long time, and is probably my favorite aspect of Super 8. The only problem is that these sequences are too unevenly spaced throughout the film. It is a character driven movie, but having such a huge and exciting sequence at the beginning makes you long for the next. When you don't get that satisfaction, it feels like the film is sagging in the middle.
     The most surprising aspect of Super 8 for me are the main characters. I'm inherently skittish of a cast comprised primarily of kids. I can't site any real reason for just is. After spending time with Joe, Charles, Alice, and the rest of the gang at the train station however, I was engrossed with the characters and couldn't wait to see what they did next. They feel so real. They act like real 13 year-olds. They swear and constantly talk over one another (overlapping dialogue is another Spielbergian trademark and is also sadly absent from the majority of modern cinema). They sneak around behind the adult's backs, at first for no other reasons than because they can and it's fun. They all also have their own distinct quirks and personality traits. Cary, for example, is always lighting things on fire or trying to blow stuff up. Every one of these characters is interesting in his or her own way.
     The relationship between Joe and Alice is one of the most intriguing of the film. You are meant to identify and empathize with Joe right from the beginning, which makes their budding friendship exciting and the emotional core of the movie. When their relationship is put into peril by the machinations of the narrative's second act, you quickly lose touch with them though. In fact you lose touch with the movie as a whole. You realize that it has now become something completely different. You're suddenly watching an effects-driven sci-fi/action movie again, just when you were getting settled into the new pace. This sudden shift in genre and tone is what keeps the movie from being mighty and a good film in its own right. You realize that it has no idea what it is from one minute to the next and is just mimicking a succession of Spielberg films. You can literally go scene by scene and say, "Oh, that's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Oh, that's E.T.. Oh, that's Jaws. Oh, that's The Goonies." Super 8 is a collection of great scenes so heavily inspired by Spielberg films you can almost say they were lifted. These scenes together do form a loose narrative, but never congeal to form a satisfying movie. They will always just be a collection of well-constructed sequences.
     This paragraph contains spoilers, so skip down to the last paragraph if you want to keep the mystery intact. There really isn't a way to discuss the specifics of what happens next without giving away some secrets. The marketing for Super 8 largely revolved around the "surprise" creature. This alien is totally underwhelming. Abrams is trying to make it both Jaws and E.T. at the same time. It kills people. It captures and eats both the military personnel who are out to harm it and people who live in the town. It is clearly a menace and it is terrorizing the community. However, thanks to a handy explanation the kids find on an old super 8 reel (wink wink), you realize the alien just wants to get home but the government is keeping it captive. If it touches a person it creates a psychic link with it and is able to understand if it is friend or foe. If it can do this, why is it kidnapping and eating innocent people? How do you feel sympathy for a creature that is destroying things? It is the exact opposite of E.T., but Abrams tries to sell the creature's sparing of Joe's life the same as the bond between E.T. and Elliott. The reveal of the alien and it's nature simply makes for a confusing and muddled third act that concludes in the most lackluster way possible.
     Super 8 is the best 80's Spielberg movie that is neither a product of the 80's or Spielberg. Does that make it a great movie? No. Does it work as a fun summer diversion? Definitely. The movie works for people who just want to be reminded of the movies of their childhood and for pre-teens and teenagers who may not be familiar with Spielberg's works. I know if I was 13 and I saw this movie it would shatter my mind in the best way possible. It works best as a gateway drug for truly magical movies, but pales if you are already familiar with them. All in all you can do a lot worse than Super 8, but you can also do a lot better. Grade: B-   

The Good, The Bad, and "Hey, is that the guy from Grease?"

     Obviously I should use this time to push one of the Spielberg classics...and I will. Since I can pretty much have my pick of the litter and still have it directly relate to Super 8 I'm going with the one that also may just be the best movie ever made. This could only be Jaws. While on the surface E.T. or Close Encounters would seem a more relevant choice you don't need to look too far into Super 8 to see that Jaws is just as integral to it's structure. You can draw direct comparisons without even thinking about it. The attack on the clerk at the convenience store is like the attack on the Kitner boy. When Joe and Co. fall under attack it directly mirrors when Mike is attacked by the shark in the small pond: both boys are the sons of the head of local law enforcement, both boys survive unscathed, both boys see men literally torn apart in front of them. You also don't really get a full glimpse at either of these creatures until the end of the film. So, Jaws it is. Jaws also happens to be a near perfect film and one that I will defend to the death as one of the finest works in the history of motion pictures. It is a true classic in every way and represents everything that Super 8 strives for and doesn't reach.
      The Village is a movie that I'm divided on to this very day. The Village should have been great and up until a certain point it really was. Then comes the reveal. Then, almost as if Shyamalan wants to make sure he has totally lost you, he throws in a twist that has a 29% chance of giving you a permanent nervous tic. If you've seen the movie then you are unfortunately familiar with what I'm talking about. If you haven't seen it I'm not going to spoil it for you. I had to suffer through it. I'm not a nice enough person to ease your pain. There are great things to be found in The Village but overall it is a huge failure as a film. It relates to Super 8 in that they were both heavily marketed as creature films and discovering what the creature is is part of the movie experience. Both films also touch "awesome" at times but can't hold onto it. 
     Super 8 is a straight up homage film that copies what inspired it rather than become something new. This can be done successfully. The movie that has achieved this with the greatest success is Pulp Fiction. So many scenes in the film are almost directly lifted from the great movies of the past, but undoubtedly become something new. I experienced this movie at the perfect time in my life and it inspired me to seek out and watch the films it emulates. It exposed me to films of directors like Truffaut, Goddard, Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Billy Wilder. While Super 8 won't ever achieve the status of a film like Pulp Ficiton it could definitely serve to expose a new generation to directors like Spielberg, De Palma, John Carpenter, and Joe Dante. If it is able to do that, Super 8 is worth it's weight in gold, regardless of it's own merits.       

1 comment:

  1. Jeremy,

    I REALLY look forward to your weekly reviews!
    They are informative, educational, witty, and right on target as far as I'm concerned.

    Thank you and keep up the great work!