Saturday, June 11, 2011

Movie Review - Super 8 (2011)

It is 1979...

                     Four months after losing his mother to a terrible industrial accident, 13 year old Joe Lamb sneaks out of the house, under the nose of his small town deputy father to gather with friends for a night of film shooting. Newly enlisted for their ambitious zombie opus, is classmate, Alice Dainard who has sneaked out to underage drive the boys to the train station in Lillian, Ohio's outskirts, and co-star in the film. However, what the night has in store may have implications beyond anything these kids, nor anyone else in town could ever possibly imagine.

                     There is something about film waxing nostalgic for another time that is capable of enrapturing viewers with a sense of comfort. A sense of the familiar for those older audience members, able to clock what is happening on screen. But this is also a two-fold problem when the film is unable to implement anything new and fresh to the proceedings. Firstly, the identification becomes a spoiling factor when the script is otherwise lacking central focus. And the second is that while nice on the surface, it is very easy for a film to roll around in its own artifice, keeping us from remembering that we are here for a story. We've seen this recently in other major releases, most egregiously, TRON LEGACY. To see Generation X have its hand at the period piece has been something of a barbed affair to say the least, and in the case of JJ Abrams' grand scale ode to the early films of producer Steven Spielberg, is an entertaining, albeit lacking affair when it comes to giving us a new angle to a world so familiar to so many.

                                   The underlying emotional core of the film centers on young Joe, who still secretly carries his mother's locket necklace with him wherever he goes, and the revelation that the capable and resourceful Alice, is also the daughter of the man (played by Ron Eldard) who shares a terrible secret regarding the fateful day four months back. This naturally affects the already strained relationship between Joe and his father (Kyle Chandler), who's early on been rumoured to have been something of an absentee dad. So when the film's central event involving a truly spectacular train crash brings over military attention, and boatloads of secrecy involving the train's cargo, sets into motion the vanishing of not only local machine parts and wanton destruction, but eventually a loss of local citizens and even pet dogs, his role eventually has to step up to be the town's father. And with this mountain of responsibility, the concerns of his son spending time with friends, working on makeup & monsters, while hanging with a local troublemaker's daughter could only be the final straw. Not to mention the relationship between Joe, and his filmmaking buddy Charles Kaznik(A VERY well done Riley Griffiths) as all of this spools out of control after that night.

                                  There is indeed an incredible amount of detail granted to the production as expected. Right on down to the lovingly added AMBLIN Entertainment logo at the opening, and the simulated graininess of era-appropriate film stock, Abrams' 1979 is a wonderful re-creation of a time quite familiar, and evocative of the last days of disco, and the coming onslaught of New Wave, as kids were compelled to step out into the world, and explore possibilities with sometimes very dangerous vigor. From the homes, to the cars, and even technology, the film gets so much right, and goes even further to almost perfectly capture The Beard at his most everyman best. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and ET receive a lot of love in this film as well as some unexpected nods to Joe Dante's Explorers, and naturally Richard Donner's The Goonies (which Spielberg also produced). The world of Lillian, Ohio is perhaps the film's biggest achievement complete with grand sweep, and feel of analog, as Joe, and his buddies struggle at first attempt to keep quiet about what they witnessed, only to have the problem turn the screws with everything and everyone around them.

                        But it is when Abrams himself, along with his script that keeps the film from being anything more than just a grand nod to this particular time, which is a shame since it's clear that so much else is in place. As his post-grand slam performances with 2009's Star Trek, and even (2006) Mission Impossible III, it is clear that this is a much more personal work, but when the emotional arcs never seem to gel in any satisfying fashion, the final product feels relatively hollow. Especially when the film goes out of its way to cast no major name actors with clearly great results (leads Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are especially game in this, as are the rest who are unfortunately deeply underwritten), there is plenty of bold to go around, but when it comes time for the visual and incredible sound effects, nearly everything else gets drowned out. And this is likely attributed to a script that never seems willing to follow through on the growing divide between the kids and their parents. It is something that Spielberg's films understood in those times, even when they were more background. What is brought to center stage (which for many reasons, I've been tiptoeing about as it really needs to be seen, even if it is a little more obvious that expected) never seems to connect terribly well with what is happening in the lives of these character. While Super 8 attempts to merge the world of the ordinary, and the fantastic, the disconnect is almost constant, and never resolves itself right unto a finale right out of ET. The film never seems to have the patience necessary once the sturm and drang kicks in, so all we're left with are often one-note stereotypes, mixed in with some well-intentioned nods to more character driven pieces of the time.

                            Letting go becomes the film's thematic driving force, which seems strange considering the fact that the film is a throwback, which was clearly the goal. Even when the director's signature swooping cameras, and full 360 moves start coming into play, the film attempts to merge eras in an at times jarring mix. And when the mystery plaguing the town comes to a full boil come the third act, it feels as if some vital pages were either missing, or neglected from the script, which leaves the rest of the film in mere spectacle territory, so all viewers have to fall back on is the nostalgia factor. But there is only so much nostalgia one can take before it begins to wallow, which is a deep shame since so much else seems to be working. Being a late addition to Copeland's Gen-X, this reviewer lands at something of an admirer of the film when love should have been the operative word.

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