Monday, June 13, 2011

It May Be "The Most Anticipated Movie Of The Summer," But Super 8 Is More Like Cloverfield 2.

The Good: Makes an attempt at character, Decent plot progression, Philosophy of the end, Special effects.
The Bad: Predictable, Light on character development, Suspension of disbelief issues
The Basics: J.J. Abrams blends E.T. and Cloverfield to make a marginally satisfying film with Super 8.

My wife and I have a pretty small disagreement about the movie industry right now. I think - despite being in the minority opinion on Fringe - that J.J. Abrams has good street cred and my wife thinks there are still so many people pissed off by the ending to Lost (reviewed here!) that he has mortgaged it. So, she was not at all excited to see Super 8 this afternoon when I took her. I, on the other hand, was marginally excited, mostly because Abrams has worn out some of his credibility with me with Fringe and his involvement in Cloverfield (reviewed here!).

Unfortunately for moviegoers, Super 8 is much more like Cloverfield than Star Trek. Despite J.J. Abrams trying to make a contribution to Summer Blockbuster Season, I'm feeling like I should have watched X-Men: First Class a second time instead and that Abrams' co-executive producer, Steven Spielberg had a lot more influence in the film than one might initially guess. Abrams has traditionally used twentysomethings as his prime subjects or people in their early thirties. With Super 8, he follows a group of middle school students in the late 1970s through a disaster movie and while the result is not entirely disastrous, it feels more like a Spielberg film than an Abrams one and ultimately it was only worth the one viewing.

Four months after his mother is killed in an accident at the Lillian steel mill, Joe Lamb is out of school for the summer and still adapting to life where his father, Jack, is the one he has to depend upon. Joe is bugged by his friend Charles to stay involved in a zombie movie the boys were shooting and Joe continues to do the make-up for the kids, arguably because Charles has managed to get Alice Dainard to participate in the movie. One night, the five boys and Alice sneak out to work on the movie at the railroad station and as a train approaches, Charles is convinced they will get some great unlikely footage. They get more than they bargain for, though, when Dr. Woodward, the school's biology teacher, drives his truck onto the tracks and causes the train to crash.

As the children flee, with the camera they were using, the Air Force descends upon Lillian to contain and cleanup the wreckage. But the wreckage is the least of the town's worries, as soon mysterious things begin happening around the city. People begin to go missing, as do car engines, generators and long lengths of electric cable on the local poles. Joe, Charles and Alice try to piece together what was on the train as Jackson finds himself in charge of keeping the populace calm and the military in check. With fear running high, the kids and their movie project turns into a very real nightmare scenario where they are being hunted by something huge, vicious and alien.

In many ways, Super 8 is what one would get if one took E.T. (or The Goonies, I suppose) and blended it with Cloverfield. Any number of shots in the film are derivative of the invasion/horror flick Abrams produced a few years ago and that makes it feel cheap at times. That's not to say there is nothing cool in Super 8, but rather that it doesn't feel as fresh as it ought to, including how long it takes for the organism to be fully revealed to the audience. The way the creature is teased for a long time before the payoff shots was very much like Cloverfield and it is worth the wait to everyone but those of us who saw Star Trek: Voyager (if you don't get the correlation, the creature design is ridiculously close to Species 8472). Moreover, there is a sense of chaos in Super 8 that mirrors Cloverfield where the protagonists are more incidental to the events going on around them. In Super 8 those scenes, the most engaging of which involves all of the military hardware going berserk on its own, are more satisfying than in Cloverfield.

But what Super 8 does exceptionally well is blend the character aspects into the Summer Blockbuster special-effects driven action-adventure film. The special effects are special and this is one of the few movies of the kind that looks homogeneously good. My wife, who is not into that type movie at all, was wide-eyed during the train explosion scene and it was a pretty incredible sequence. Abrams and his team time many of the encounters between Joe, his friends and the creature well so after a predictable scene where an incidental character is abducted, there will be a legitimate shocking moment that actually is exciting.

The film opens with Abrams' trademark loss to get the audience invested in the primary protagonist. For Alias it was Sydney's fiance getting killed, for Lost it was the way of life for the passengers on Oceanic 815 (or Christian Shephard's death), in Star Trek Captain Kirk loses his father right away and . . . wow, I swear I didn't catch before now that Abrams uses the exact same hook in every one of his works! But, it's effective enough and the audience cares about Joe right away and while he acts more as witness and follower than leader the audience is still invested in him. Unfortunately, Joe's story is far too short to be as iconic as Sydney Bristow or Jack Shephard's story. But he is likable.

Alice is likable as well and she is well-played by Elle Fanning. Fanning and most of the other children are stuck with an acting challenge built right into the movie. The group of kids - Joel Courtney (Joe), Ryan Lee (Cary), Riley Griffiths (Charles), Zach Mills (Preston), Gabriel Basso (Martin) and Elle Fanning (Alice) - are playing children who are awkward kids trying to act. Abrams directs them to act badly for the scenes where they are filming Charles' zombie movie and that works perfectly. It also sets up an expectation where the actual actors will be forced to do some good acting in similar circumstances. Elle Fanning earns her paycheck in a scene where Alice confesses to Joe about the family connection between her father and his mother's death. In that scene, Fanning gives a performance that sells that she is a caliber actor well above the level of her character. The rest of the cast does fine, but actors like Courtney do more by emoting to bluescreens well or running through chaotic, exploding areas and making them seem real.

On the adult front, Super 8 is dominated by Kyle Chandler who overcomes his babyface to emote more than look good. For my money, I would have wanted more scenes where he seemed genuinely tormented or internally conflicted, but he does fine as Jack. His foil in the film is Air Force officer Nelec who is played by Noah Emmerich. Emmerich is playing Nelec as a heavy without any real nuance and he works out for that.

After long stretches of slow character-building scenes that work in an academic fashion, Super 8 descends into a pretty standard monster attacks movie with the requisite attacks, escapes, revelations and resolution. As for the film's resolution, there is some cheese factor to it, but I admire Abrams for the philosophical aspect to it. Sure, the end is so weak and one has to wonder if the alien has been establishing psychic bonds with people how it could not have picked up compassion by now, but the philosophy that Joe represents is a highbrow one, if a cinematically unsatisfying one. Abrams also doesn't want the viewers to think too much about how a creature that is as powerful as this one was contained for over twenty years. As well, he'd probably be annoyed at how I furrowed my brow when Nelec interrogates Woodward about who else might know about the creature and instead of using a truth serum on him to actually get the answers he needs, he has the doctor killed. My exclamation of "Abrams . . . really?!" in the theater probably would have cheesed him off. But the point is, we're not supposed to think too much about this one and in that regard, Abrams lets us down a little considering how clever and philosophical some of his other works are.

Super 8 is just a much-hyped popcorn movie and if it were hotter where I am living, I'd probably recommend it just to get people out of the heat. But it's cool here and my endorsement of the movie is pretty cold as well. Those looking for the next great science fiction film that will make you want to add it to your collection may only have to wait a week, because Super 8 is not that movie.

For other alien horror films, please check out my reviews of:
Robert A. Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters"
The Alien Quadrilogy
Battle Los Angeles


For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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