Friday, June 10, 2011
Review of SUPER 8
I haven't been as crazy about JJ Abrams as much as everyone else. I haven't watched his TV shows (cause I watch way too many films to invest time in Television), and I didn't think his reboot of STAR TREK was the greatest Sci-Fi film ever made like everyone else seems to think so. However, I do think he's a solid filmmaker, just not a great one. I gave both of his films (MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III and STAR TREK) a solid three stars. That's what I think of him. A solid three-star director, nothing more. With his third film, I was curious to see what kind of film he would come up with when he wasn't doing a sequel or a reboot.
An admitted and unapologetic homage to early Spielberg films, SUPER 8 takes place in 1979. I'll try to be as spoiler free as I can, but if you want to go into the movie knowing absolutely nothing, you may want to wait until you see the movie to read further. The story is fairly simple as it centers on a group of Junior High kids trying to make a zombie film for the Cleveland film festival. One night they sneak out to film at an abandoned train station. They see a train coming by and decide that it would add production value if they had the train going by in the background of the scene. But out of nowhere, a pickup truck pulls in front of the train and it derails. The kids barely survive the ordeal. Something escapes from the train and one of the kids finds a mysterious cube that vibrates once in awhile. The following morning, the small town of which the film takes place in is completely locked down. The military has taken over. The kids use this as an opportunity to make the film even better by using the military takeover as a backdrop for their remaining scenes. But, at night, mysterious things are happening. Dogs are disappearing and people have gone missing. Whatever escaped from the train and the kids' storyline mesh together in the second half. That's all I'll say about the plot.
What really makes this film work is the casting of the kids. They are all fantastic! The main kid is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney in a stunning debut). His mom has passed away in a tragic factory accident. His dad (Kyle Chandler) is a local deputy and is too busy for his son, so he wants to send him to baseball camp, but Joe wants to help his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish his zombie movie, by doing makeup. Also in the mix is a beautiful pre-teen named Alice (Dakota Fanning's sister Elle) who everyone has a crush on. The kids convince her to act in the film. There is also Cary (Ryan Lee) who is obsessed with explosives, and Preston (Zach Mills) and Martin (Gabriel Basso) round up the characters. There are also some pretty heavy subplots that involve the relationship between Joe and his father, and Alice and her drunk father, who may have had something to do with the death of Joe's mother.
The story is simple, but the characters are rich and complex. The relationships the kids have with each other is entertainingly authentic. I can easily compare the interaction with the kids to THE GOONIES, by the way they talk over each other and swear freely at one another. It's this kind of energy that drives the movie. There is also something infectious about how they are dedicated to finish their film. It's very charming. The relationship between Joe and Alice is captivating as we see a bond develop. It definitely took me back to when I had a crush on the prettiest girl in Junior High, and how it felt to talk to her. JJ really captures that feeling.
And if that wasn't good enough, then he adds the monster movie element. There are some people who don't really care for the meshing of genres, but I love it! There are some very thrilling moments that recall Jurassic Park and Aliens (though not quite as intense as those) that are done very well, and the scenes work mostly because we care so much about the characters. In fact, there was a point in the movie where I was so involved with the characters that I completely forgot about the monster plot, and then when it was reintroduced, I was genuinely surprised. The last third is full of adventure set pieces laced with moments of humor (a scary scene involving puke had me on the edge of my seat as well as laughing out loud) and has a different pace than the rest of the picture, but it works extremely well. It really does have that kind of old school Spielberg feeling. I won't get into details of these scenes, but just know that the whole film is exhilarating.
Like I said, the cast is perfect. Joel Courtney is terrific in his first role and is easy to identify with. The heavyset Riley Griffiths is equally as good as the young filmmaker. Ryan Lee steals the show as the explosives nut, and the way they use his obsession in the plot is genius. Elle Fanning is at least as talented as her sister. She makes it easy for boys to fall in love with her, and has great dramatic range. The first scene in which she acts in the movie-within-the-movie, and how the boys react to that, is pure magic. The adults are pretty good too. Even though Kyle Chandler's looks scream "Television actor", he proves to be a great leading man as Joe's dad. There's a terrific scene when he takes charge of a situation that had me cheering. Ron Eldard may be the weakest link as Alice's drunk father, but that's because everyone else is so good. Noah Emmerich rounds out the adults as the head of military operations, giving an effective understated performance.
JJ Abrams is on his way to become a master craftsman, like his idol. He works with kids very well, he knows how to stage action and mayhem, and his characters are deep and have genuine emotion. There were only a few (very few) sloppy edits that keep this from being as good as a Spielberg film. Composer Michael Giacchino succeeds at emulating the great John Williams during many moments during the film, and that really helps give the film that nostalgic feeling. The special effects are also first rate, and only at 45 million dollars, SUPER 8 proves that you don't need to spend over 200 million to make a blockbuster.
I saw this with my daughter and the experience was absolutely magical. It was so cool to simultaneously laugh, jump, and cry while watching this film together. There are some people who have let the hype of this film get to them. Don't. Comparing this movie to JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T. before seeing the movie is only going to set yourself up for disappointment. Of course this movie isn't as good as those. But it's not trying to be. Instead, it's JJ Abrams' "thank you" to Steven Spielberg. It's like he said, "Thank you for making those movies while I was growing up. Now, here's what you inspired me to make". And it's a terrific ride that I can't wait to experience again.
***1/2 (out of ****)