Friday, June 24, 2011

kids and a camera

Super 8 is the kind of summer movie Hollywood rarely makes anymore. I can't think of many blockbusters with a sense of warmth that isn't too unbearably treacly and doesn't exist in some slick, incomprehensible CGI fantasyland. JJ Abrams (the creative television auteur who had a hit with Star Trek) sets his nostalgic ode to Spielberg and retro monster movie/disaster flicks (posters for Earthquake, Dawn of the Dead, and Halloween appear on a kid's wall) in an Ohio steel town in the summer of '79.

Joe Lamb (played well by young Joel Courtney) is grieving over his mother's accidental death.  She died taking a shift at the mill when young Alice Dainard's (Elle Fanning, showing great charisma) drunken father (Ron Eldard) never showed (it takes too long for this plot detail to emerge). Joe's distraught deputy father (Kyle Chandler) holds a deep grudge.  Joe, Alice, and their ragtag friends (they never are quite distinct as the characters in The Goonies, a movie this is getting compared to a lot by critics, though all of the young actors here are superb) spend their summer making a zombie movie directed by mouthy Charles (Riley Griffiths). Out late filming by an old train station, the kids witness a fiery collision which unleashes a mysterious government cover-up.

The plot is pretty much hackneyed nonsense and the film never gels in a satisfying way but I was so caught up in Abrams' attention to '70s detail that I really didn't mind.  As in Star Trek, Abrams too-often prolongs uninteresting, convoluted action sequences.  In Super 8, the visual spectacle doesn't derive from the generic monster or the special effects but the set design including dimly-lit ranch houses and a vivid gas station (named Kelvin, after Abrams' grandfather, who gave the filmmaker his first super 8 camera) with all its stacks of period junk food.  Though quickly paced and well-shot, comparisons to Spielberg (who produced; his E.T. Amblin logo sets the mood) fall short (the town is evacuated similarly to Close Encounters of the Third Kind) but it's also certainly better than some of his latter action flicks, including his War of the Worlds misfire.  The overzealous score by Michael Giacchino lacks the unique tunefulness of John Williams even though he seems desperate to match him in bombast.  Perhaps the film won't live up in the long run, but it certainly has more stylistic appeal than any of the films previewed in the cringe-worthy trailers that proceeded itincluding a horrendous-looking talking animal romp The Zookeeper and what appears to be another vapid Transformers with Shia LaBeouf emoting around shattering glass towers and tumbling about with CGI robots.  I like fun action and sci-fi flicks and grew up with an appreciation for disaster movies but the ones Hollywood has been making lately are so boring and so hollow.  I never understood why people thought Star Trek was so different from the rest of the mainstream dreck the system pumps out now. Chris Pine was fine but his cocky, soulless character was a chore to get attached to.  Here Abrams has more of a sense of humor and gives us sympathetic, believable characters well-played by a sturdy cast. Perhaps a lot of people are like me--looking for more camp, more rough-around-the-edges, and more human flicks from the studios.  The corny, just-right Super 8 film shown during the credits elicited applause from the audience and is arguably better than Super 8 itself.  There's a tenderness in the film's ending, a shot of mom-and-pop stores under the night sky. Abrams seems particularly wistful (and symbolic) about that cinematic and socioeconomic American landscape that barely exists today. ***

-Jeffery Berg


  1. maybe i should go see this, thanks for the review! they don't make them like The Goonies anymore.

  2. agreed! this isn't as good as 'the goonies,' but a fun time at the movies nonetheless.