Saturday, August 6, 2011

Review: Super 8

Super Great?

Here's an actual quote from producer Frank Marshall to reassure fans before the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (source):
"Steven is very aware of the process and we're not cheating with CG (computer graphics) at all. It keeps the B movie feel."
Years later, it's painfully obvious what a vicious lie that was. Heralded as a return to the old-fashioned romps of the golden days of cinematic entertainment, Indy 4 was anything but. Only a few seconds into the film a computerised gopher raised its cartoonish head, and the audience knew they had been had. The few moments of nostalgic action - the bike chase, the diner fight - were drowned out by waves of CGI monkeys, vine swinging and (spoiler!) alien spacecraft. I'm not as hostile to Kingdom... than others, but a sham it often was. Rather than emulate the good old days, it made you yearn for The Goonies, Close Encounters, E.T., Jaws and of course the early Indiana Jones films. Heck, even Jurassic Park and its majestic dinosaurs. Those were the days when Spielberg films were kept on the ground by focused stories and fantastical elements subtly but effectively intruding upon a recognisable world. Then George Lucas had his wicked way, and suddenly Shia LaBeouf was swinging through rain forests with barely a concern for gravity or believability.

Super 8 - finally receiving a European release two months after its domestic debut - is the anti-Crystal Skull. Here, the majority of the film is pleasantly down to earth, old-fashioned and deeply nostalgic. Unlike Indy 4, the film isn't dominated by excessive effects work. But where a small minority of less effects heavy scenes impressed in KOTCS, a handful of sequences here depress with an overly heavy reliance on incredible effects. Crystal Skull was Hollywood excess despite moments of charm. Super 8 is charming despite moments of Hollywood excess.

The closest relative to this film is the timeless Goonies. A group of kids setting out to make a homemade zombie movie for a local film festival heavily recall the adventurers who set out to find One Eye Willy's (decades on, the name still invokes childish chuckles) both in attitude and stature. In Super 8's case, the ragtag group - the explosives / fireworks expert, the nerd, that twitchy nervous kid - are led by the charismatic, newly motherless Joe (Joel Courtney) and wannabe auteur Charles (Riley Griffiths). After persuading the popular Alice (Elle Fanning) to co-star in their zombie epic, the group sneak out of the house at night to film a scene. Unfortunately, they also happen to get caught up in the middle of an horrific train derailment. Shit one. While the kids emerge unscathed, it quickly becomes clear from a heavy military presence that there's something more than meets the eye going on here. Especially when dogs start disappearing, power outages increase and, eventually, the sheriff and others go missing. The kids try to put the finishing touches on their film despite this increasingly dangerous backdrop, all the while trying to deal with friendships, troubling secrets, growing up and Joe's well-intentioned but stern father Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler). Oh: and a monster.

Super 8 is directed with great lens flare by J.J. Abrams. The pun is intentional - the man is over fond of light sources reflecting off the camera, even more obvious here than in his previous work. But he also carries over the more lovable sense of fun, tension and adventure that defined his previous two big budget blockbusters. Working with a new IP could have proven troublesome, but under the tutelage of producer Steven Spielberg, Abrams has crafted another terrifically entertaining film. By capturing the small town atmosphere of many a creature-feature and Spielberg film past, Abrams shows us how a simple genre film such as this should work. The cinematic ambitions of the youngsters keeps the film focused while providing plenty of laughs as they earnestly try to craft a zombie movie with a 'story'. There's perhaps a deeper reading in there about the very nature of making a film, but you'll be having too much fun to care. The kids all put in damn good performances: Fanning we knew could provide a surprisingly mature performance from Somewhere, but the newcomers impress too, especially Griffiths as a director with visions of grandeur. They all make the transition to action heroes surprisingly well.

Super Lens Flare
The narrative rarely breaks new ground (ground is literally broken, but that's not what I meant), but the small town tensions and conflicts remain compelling throughout. It's funny, moving and thrilling in equal measure. Set on the eve of the 1980s, it's achingly nostalgic throughout but rarely in-your-face with its retro setting (a few cheeky soundtrack additions and disco references aside). When the action kicks in, it's handled well too. The centerpiece train crash might look artificial, but the sequences where the kids wander through the wreckage, as well as the initial monster attacks and military escalation are well handled and entertaining. An admirable touch here is that the 'money shots' from the promotional materials and trailers are often shot from a different perspective in the actual film: a decision that many over zealous marketers could learn something from. Also helping matters is a rousing score from one of cinema's most underappreciated talents: Abram's regular composer Michael Giacchino. Like his work on Star Trek, Lost and Up (to name but a few), the soundtrack here is as effective in the emotional scenes as it is in the action ones. It echoes John Williams' many Spielbergian works, but with affection rather than mimicry, all the while retaining a distinctive sound all of its own.

Some spoilers in the following paragraph:

Unfortunately, the film stumbles a bit during its particularly formulaic third act. Up until then, the monster had only been partially and ever-so-briefly glimpsed; an unoriginal but likable trick that lends the action scenes an air of mystery. Indeed, I personally quite enjoyed the high camp sci-fi explanation for why this is all going down (gotta dig the cubes), but then I'm for the most part a fan of Abram and friends' fantastical flights of fancy (I'm one of those weirdos who stuck with Lost 'til the end). Alas, the monster itself proves a revelation too far. Like Cloverfield before it, the creature is too unreal and incredible; a bad case of CG artists gone wild. The surreal monster design is particularly unfortunate when we're asked to sympathise with this unbelievable creature. I simply couldn't bring myself to do it - this misunderstood (but murderous) alien is no E.T. Luckily, though, an extended encounter with the once mysterious creature is followed by a well handled ending. While many may bemoan the Crystal Skulls / Close Encounters-esque resolution, the scenes of a main street suddenly becoming magnetised are hypnotic. It find it hard to believe anyone could watch the finally completed movie-within-a-movie that plays over the credits without being charmed once again.

Spoilers end.

Flawed Super 8 is. Yet it still stands as a welcome contrast to what stands for a summer blockbuster these days. In a world where the Star Wars, Avatars and countless superhero movies try to upstage each other by creating ever more extravagant and expensive worlds for paper-thin characters to occupy, Super 8 stays simple. In channeling the very films that provoked the rise of the 'summer blockbuster' as we know it, it reminds the audience that charm, innocence and adventure can provide far more entertainment than the lush forests of Pandora ever could. J.J. Abrams remains a guiding light for the entertainers of Hollywood, even if Super 8 infrequently lacks the whirlwind of his stunningly successful trip aboard the Star Trek Enterprise. Super 8 is not original. It's occasionally indulgent. Overall it's rather disposable. But Super 8 is the rare film that doesn't make you feel guilty for switching off your brain.

1 comment:

  1. Another nice review, I enjoyed Super 8 quite thoroughly as well. welcome to LAMB!