8 August 2011

SUPER 8- Review

Like most films with a number affixed to the end of its title, the least credit you can give to anything in Super 8 would be to its originality. Director JJ Abrams is unabashedly homaging the 1980s oeuvre of producer Steven Spielberg, which was itself largely comprised of callbacks to his own 1950s childhood and the adventure movies on which he'd been raised. None of which is to say that this newer, doubly nostalgic film is unenjoyable.

In the small everytown of Lillian, Joe Lamb is a 13-year-old boy who's recently lost his mother in an industrial accident. Living with his grieving father, he expresses himself by helping out his best mate, Charles. Charles is making a short zombie movie for a regional film festival, shooting on Super 8 film. The production is shockingly afflicted by the kids' middle-school teacher driving his truck into a passing US Air Force train. The train derails and its cargo escapes, leading to a series of mysterious disappearances in Lillian.

Abrams counts only Mission: Impossible 3 and Star Trek amongst his prior directorial efforts, and though both are great films, we haven't seen him direct his own original project until now. And in this instance, it feels almost like he's been deputised to direct by the producer, so close is the tone of the film to those 80s Spielberg movies. That's entirely intentional, but it doesn't allow for the film to be quite as good as I was hoping.

Purely in terms of vision and talent, Abrams may well become the Spielberg of his generation, but the joins where his style clashes with Spielberg's in Super 8 really bring the film down. In the tradition of Lost, which Abrams created, a lot of the film is spent in anticipation. That hearkens back to Jaws too, but when we spend so long not seeing the train's cargo, we pass a point where the pay-off has to be huge to be fully satisfying. And certainly, some will argue that such a pay-off never comes.

The homage extends to the score too, with one of my favourite composers, Michael Giacchino, erring more than a little towards the work of John Williams. Again, it's intentional, and yet less troublesome than the direction. But the effect is that in certain scenes that are meant to be moving, I found the music more moving than the situation. It might be a case of the music telling you how to feel, but I really feel that the score is tremendous in this one, and it's the pacing of the film itself that makes the mood less than equal to the music.

But there's also a lot to praise in Super 8, starting with the marketing. One of the best things this film takes from Spielberg's filmmaking is that the trailers haven't shown you an awful lot of the movie's plot. Add to the fact that it has no stars to speak of, and only the names of those behind the scenes to sell it in a competitive field, and that's not only brilliant, but also very brave. The final product may be more predictable than you'd think, but it benefits hugely from the fact that we haven't already seen it in a million different bits of marketing.

And in the film itself, the lack of stars is no drawback- the cast are fantastic. Especially worthy of praise are Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning as Joe and Alice. Their adolescent attraction is genuinely touching, and far more romantic than most grown-up relationships in modern film. Fanning is a class act as the most emotionally mature of the otherwise male film crew, who approximate something close to the Goonies or the kids from Stand By Me. Although the parental trope for Spielberg often revolved around the absent father, Super 8's smallest of subversions comes with the absence of Joe's late mother.

However, it picks right up with another favoured daddy issue trope- the restoration of the father, a la Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and others. Most of the film's emotional complexity comes from how Joe's police deputy father can't seem to connect with his son since her death, and at one point he's caught sobbing in the bathroom when Joe comes home from school. Alice's mother is also absent, and her waster of a father also needs to find redemption before the credits roll. But therein lies the emotional depth of the film, and all the performances are very good in this aspect, the kids holding their own alongside the adults.

Refreshingly, the kids in the film feel like real kids, who can bicker and have conflicting personalities and still be the best of friends. Their ringleader, Charles is an Orson Welles in the making, played very well by Riley Griffiths, who insists upon seizing opportunities for good production value wherever they can get it. Contrary to Son of Rambow, a film with similarly ambitious young characters, their production values are already pretty good, as far as their equipment, make-up and costumes are concerned. I'm now a grown-ass man and I've made short films less technically adept than theirs. Damn these children!

As it's very clearly a nostalgic bit of wish fulfilment for JJ Abrams, it's not too much of a stretch to believe that he knew some kids like this when he was younger. He himself admits that he made films with a Super 8 camera in his youth, and I'm personally hoping to see some of those show up on the Blu-ray special features. The kids represented here are hugely endearing- even Cary, the zombie movie's mulleted pyrotechnics expert, who I'm 99% certain is based on Michael Bay.

For all of its flaws, Super 8 is a film that reaps the benefits of its secretive marketing campaign, which has hopefully done its job well enough that people know it's out now, avoid spoilers, and go and see it. It's got a 12A certficate, but like the best of Spielberg's family films, it should find traction with a young audience, who are by now reacquainted with family friendly scary movies through the likes of Harry Potter and Coraline. For older viewers, it might not match those halcyon days, but it's a nostalgic and, more importantly, heartfelt rehash of fondly remembered blockbuster cinema.

Super 8 is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Super 8, why not share your comments below? Anyone noticed how much of Noah Emmerich's career seems to be based in roles where he has to cover something up?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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