Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mint!: Super 8

When I was in elementary school, my friend’s older brother, who was in middle school at the time but seemed to me to be about 23, wrote a screenplay. All I remember about the script is that it was (1) written on college ruled paper; (2) starred a character named Maximilian; and (3) involved a scene in which a bunch of kids, including Max, threw flowerpots down from a rooftop at the story’s adult villains, who might have been Russians, but who knows. Come to think of it, that might be all I ever knew about the screenplay, which at 100-or-so pages struck me as something that would take months to read, which is why I happily settled for descriptions. My friend was certain his big brother’s script would be made into a movie, and so was I. After all, the script had a main character with a cool name and kids throwing flowerpots at bad guys. What else could it possibly need? (And did I mention it was written on college ruled paper? This was serious stuff!) To my mind, it was only a matter of time before cameras came into our neighborhood to shoot the big flowerpot scene. My only uncertainty was whether I’d be in it.

Cut to today: J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 tells the story of kids growing up in a similar period and with a similar fascination with movies. Super 8 is being called Abrams’ homage to Steven Spielberg (who is the film’s executive producer), and with good reason: the film itself recalls some of Spielberg’s early pictures, particularly E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws, and Super 8’s kid-made film within a film, The Case, reminds of those 8 mm homemade movies Spielberg made growing up in Arizona. But to me Super 8’s throwback appeal is broader than that, and to focus on Spielberg’s influence is to miss the bigger picture. Abrams’ film is set in 1979 but it’s of the 1980s, a period in which Hollywood regularly gave us movies about kids triumphing in the face of very adult danger. Just off the top of my head, we had E.T. (1982), War Games (1983), The NeverEnding Story (1984), Cloak & Dagger (1984), The Goonies (1985), Explorers (1985), Flight of the Navigator (1986), Space Camp (1986) and Russkies (1987). (Honorable mention to 1983’s The Outsiders and 1986’s Stand By Me, which pit kids against kids, and 1984’s Red Dawn, which is about teenagers.) These are movies I grew up on or around (I’ve actually never seen Space Camp or Russkies, though it feels as if I have). These are movies that made me feel like I didn’t have to grow up to be a hero. And these are the kinds of movies I miss discovering on summer afternoons – although I didn’t realize how much until I saw Super 8.

So while it’s only right to attribute some of the effect to nostalgia, I struggle to think of a time in the past 10 years when I’ve enjoyed a “Summer Movie” quite this much, perhaps because Super 8 looks and feels like the movies of my childhood summers, which weren’t dominated by comic book superheroes or digital effects, as they are today. (Aside: I saw the trailer for Transformers: Dark of the Moon yesterday, and I’m still amazed that fans of that series can tell the difference between the “good bots” and the “bad bots” – apart from the bright yellow Bumblebee – during the never-ending fight scenes; although maybe they can’t, and maybe that says everything about the way summer movies have changed over the years from plot/character-driven adventures to noise spectacles in which what is happening doesn’t seem to matter so long as something is.) Two of the best things that Super 8 has going for it are a sense of place and a sense of space. The Ohio town is just small enough that the sheriff’s deputy can know everyone by name and just big enough that its kids can find unsupervised corners in which to make mischief. Everything seems a bike ride away. And while so many of the film’s episodes are borrowed from early Spielberg films, which often borrowed from 1950s monster movies, they unfold with such patience and sincerity that it’s as if they’re new. The train crash; the encounter with the monster at the gas station; the encounter with the monster along an empty highway; and so on: these are self-standing moments of adventure and/or suspense, not perfunctory demonstrations of special-effects outrageousness. Abrams’ film isn’t without excess (the train crash, in particular, carries on until it becomes ridiculous), but the tail never wags the dog.

What Super 8 does best though is capture the mixture of ambition, naïveté, insecurity, cheer and general naked emotionality of childhood. The main character is Joel Courtney’s Joe Lamb, an only child whose mother died in an accident four months prior. Joe consistently clutches to a locket that used to belong to his mom, a clear symbol of how much he misses her even while he cavorts with his friends as if nothing has changed. So many adult dramas would ascribe adult emotions to Joe, making him withdrawn, sullen and bitter. But Abrams, who wrote the screenplay, apparently realizes that kids aren’t like that. More often than not, kids respond to trauma as Joe does: coping in public and clinging to their sorrow and uncertainty until alone in the safety of their bedrooms. Joe never breaks down into a puddle of tears, and he doesn’t need to. His loneliness is palpable. The same could be said for Alice Dainard, Joe’s budding love interest, who has only her alcoholic father to look after her. Alice is played by Elle Fanning in what I’m certain will go down as one of the best supporting performances of the year. She’s tremendous. Alice is slightly more mature than the boys around her and yet too young to realize what power she has over them. In one terrific scene, Alice rehearses for one of the scenes in The Case and turns in a performance so convincing that it leaves the boys with gaping mouths, but Abrams never forgets that girls often have this effect on boys. Sometimes all they need to do is put up their hair or stand within arm’s length.

Super 8 is best early on because it spends time observing the kids as kids and allows those scenes to breathe. In the final third of the film, things get messy: the monster’s motives and actions are unclear and magnetic effect of his whatever is inconsistent. But big deal. The giant CGI beasty is the MacGuffin, nothing more, and it’s not often we get to say that anymore. Abrams deserves credit for being judicious with his creature shots – and, relatively speaking, he’s actually somewhat reserved with his trademark lens flares, too, although it’s particularly annoying when he allows a giant blue streak to cross the screen when the light source causing it isn’t even within the frame). Super 8 may not rival the best of Spielberg, but it’s far more rewarding than the worst of him. It’s the kind of movie we once thought M. Night Shyamalan would serve up with regularity but hasn’t. Truth is, no one has. Fairly late in Super 8, after the quiet Ohio town has become a war zone, there’s a terrific crane shot that captures the boys from above, running through yards amidst house fires, military tanks and explosions. The shot is so extreme that I was just about to roll my eyes at it, until I remembered my youth. That shot is exactly the kind of adventure I imagined myself in all the time and exactly the kind of scene I would have reenacted with friends. No one throws a flowerpot in Super 8, but Abrams throws the kitchen sink. Good enough.


FilmDr said...

Nice work, although the film's wonder drains away as the monster becomes clearer and hence more derivative in the third act. Abrams might have done better to never show the monster at all.

I was wondering if the lens flares are used the most in moments of highest emotion. They dominate when Alice rehearses her scene.

What did you think of the finished The Case in the end credits? I thought it put the whole third act to shame.

Jason Bellamy said...

Abrams might have done better to never show the monster at all.

He nearly accomplished that. Close enough that I didn't feel the wonder dissipate on sight of the monster. Guess I never really cared about it. This is just me, but it's extremely rare that a CGI "monster" holds my interest and feels as imposing as it's supposed to be. The T-Rex in Jurassic Park stands out. And the great ape in Peter Jackson's King Kong. But other than that ... well, I'm thinking and coming up empty. The larger problem for me wasn't the monster but the utter confusion about his motives: why does he capture those people? why are they unconscious and then not? why does he not kill them at first but does so later? and why did he need all those appliances when what he really needed were his magic cubes? But the lackluster third went by so quickly, I didn't mind.

As for The Case, I nearly missed it. I was halfway out the door when I heard the first line of dialogue and hustled back. It was terrific fun. But it only works because of what precedes it.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I loved Russkies! Nice reference there. I stopped reading after that because I haven't seen this yet.

Hokahey said...

Jason - I share your enthusiasm for the performances of Courtney and Fanning, as well as for the kids' creation of their movie, but I think the big positive factor for you here is nostalgia for summer movies of the 80s - and when I saw those summer movies of the 80s, I was in my more cynical 30s, and so let's put it this way: I don't have as much nostalgia for the movies of the 80s as you do. As you say here, "things get messy" in this movie. For me, they got too messy and noisy and discordant for me to have enjoyed this film as a whole. Yes, this film does not have the bloated CGI of the notoriously bloated summer fare that plagues this summer and previous summers - but I sure felt it had some of the noise, silliness, and overblown-ness (the train wreck; the tank battle/explosions episode) that I associate with those notoriously overblown summer movies we deplore.

That said, I still totally understand your enjoyment of this film while you forgive it for its shortcomings. In the past I have similarly enjoyed and forgiven movies like Knowing, for example. But I just couldn't forgive Super 8 enough to enjoy it.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: I'm somewhat surprised you didn't like this one. Maybe even very surprised.

I sure felt it had some of the noise, silliness, and overblown-ness (the train wreck; the tank battle/explosions episode) that I associate with those notoriously overblown summer movies we deplore.

This is true. But those moments of excess are such a small percentage of the picture.

Another good example: The vomit gag (no pun intended) is one that in another movie would have made me feel sick. But Abrams uses it appropriately, as nothing more than a silly gag -- blink and you might miss it. It's never the point of the scene. It's never a big punchline. It's just another ingredient. So, yes, in a sense Super 8 has so many of the things that drive me crazy about blockbusters these days, but it has so much less of them. Even the tank scene, for all its massiveness, is incredibly brief. And that's why I felt this was always a story about the kids that didn't require me being the slightest bit impressed with all the CGI for it to work (something I couldn't say for Knowing, but that's a different debate).

Not trying to turn you around on this one. But in so many ways this would seem to be right in your comfort zone (your love of War of the Worlds, for example). So just a little surprised.

Jason Bellamy said...

I realized I meant to comment on this from Film Doc ...

I was wondering if the lens flares are used the most in moments of highest emotion. They dominate when Alice rehearses her scene.

I hadn't thought about that as the movie was unfolding, but going back in my memory that analysis would seem to work. Abrams' love affair with lens flares is just so odd. You'd expect a guy who loved them so much would treat them with undo respect, preserving them for special occasions and then going over the top. But even if Abrams tries to make sure they show up in scenes of high emotion, in general he seems to have the attitude that any flare is a good flare at any time. Odd.

nightfly said...

I'm thinking about Stand By Me, which you spoke of "kids against kids" rather than against "adult danger." Wouldn't the plot suggest otherwise? The main action has the four friends hiking out into the wilderness on their own, far out of the reach of any sort of adult help; the side plot with Keifer and his hoodlums also seems like an adult danger - they're old enough to drive, anyway, no matter that they're older teen delinquents rather than men with jobs and such.

Hokahey said...

Jason - I'm not surprised I didn't like this movie. The alien/sci-fi elements of this movie are just not done thoughtfully enough or dramatically enough for this to be my kind of movie. And, for the most part, I like more serious sci-fi.

As we know, this was two movie ideas thrown together. Abrams does the moviemaking story well - and it could have been even better if it had been the focus of the film. The Area 51 story is poorly done; it detracts from the better part of the film.

Jason Bellamy said...

Nightfly: It is indeed adult-esque danger, which is why I mentioned it, but it isn't quite the same. In Stand By Me, so much of what the kids get involved in is entirely of their own doing, and they are merely without adult help, rather than actively taking on adults. Also, the stakes just aren't quite as high (except when they foolishly take on a train). By comparison, in Goonies the kids are pursued by mean, murderous, gun-toting (if bumbling) adults, and in NeverEnding Story the kid essentially has to save the world. Don't get me wrong, in terms of emotion Stand By Me fits, but the adult menace and/or general stakes don't quite fit with those other movies. (Not a criticism; just an observation.)

Jason Bellamy said...

I like more serious sci-fi.

Good point. Thinking about it that way, this movie is kind of a 'tweener for you -- not enough of one thing or the other.

As for the two-part story: I only learned of that after I saw the movie. I can see the seams in retrospect, but the first time around it all worked fine for me as one piece. I agree that the monster elements are the weak link, but I didn't have a problem with bringing those two stories together.

jake said...

I'm with you, Jason: I went to this by myself the other night out of curiosity - friends had been singing its praises, and my experience felt much like you described yours to be. I was so caught up in the nostalgia of this "type" of movie (at 32 now, I was the perfect age for The Goonies, Close Encounters, E.T., etc, to have a huge impact) that I easily forgave the film it's obvious shortcomings.

I only realized after the film, while telling people how much fun I had watching it, that I couldn't really put the plot into words, because it doesn't really come together! You're right about the 3rd act - wtf is going on with the hanging bodies and the magnetized objects and the hot/cold tempered monster?

It just goes to show you how starved we all are for a summer blockbuster with some SOUL. My friends who have seen the likes of Iron Man 2 and who might even see Green Lantern or Transformers 3 basically describe them as giant ads - they aren't even movies at this point.

It was so refreshing to see something like this, where it felt like the filmmakers actually gave a crap about the audience and were investing some genuine emotion into the filmmaking while at the same time making sure we're all having fun.

Refreshing enough that ridiculously overdone train wrecks and convoluted 3rd acts are instantly forgiven.

Jason Bellamy said...

It just goes to show you how starved we all are for a summer blockbuster with some SOUL.

Well said. Even when certain soulful moments didn't work -- I thought Fanning carried her end of the fractured daughter/father relationship better than Eldard -- I was at least grateful the film was trying.

It is a bummer that the train crash goes on so long. When it started, I thought: "Wow, this is the first time in a while that a summer blockbuster has given me a big action spectacle that seems organic." Of course, little did I know at that point that I was only seeing the beginning of the crash.

Oh, well.

Looking forward to catching this a second time at some point.

jake said...

Jason, it almost seems like the train sequence was drawn out to 'remind' blockbuster viewers that This Is A Blockbuster And Don't You Forget It!

Agreed on Eldard's performance - I thought he was miscast right away.

I'll also see it again just for the entertainment of the kids.

Fumero said...

Super 8 is certainly a refreshing change from the Transformers and Green Lanterns and Thors and...phew! (Although the title is a little uninspired for me. Not the sort of title that screams "epic classic" like Jaws, CEOT3K, or E.T. Abrams could've worked on that bit)

However, my biggest complaint is not the title. One would be the alien being too big, and too much CGI. I would've preferred the creature design to be at a more managable size and created using practical effects like the queen in "Aliens." It can be done and still look realistic. I'm just sayin'.

The other is maybe the fact that Abrams went the predictable route. Rather than creating his own completely original story with a Spielbergian tone or style, (like Signs and The Sixth Sense, which "felt" like Spielberg films without actually jacking elements from any Spielberg films), he instead decided to direct an actual Spielberg movie, with patches of other Spielberg movies sewn in between. Which is still fun, and nostalgic, and a million times better than what we as audiences are pounded with every single weekend now. But I still wish he had gone another way to come up with his own story and fresh characters. You're doing a PG-13 alien movie? Fine. But keep it high concept and a NEW concept. A new kind of alien. A different sort of setting. Maybe even in modern times! It can be done and still be done in this day and age, (once you erase any trace of the SmartPhones, iPods, twitter, facebook, or the internet in general, as well as the boring, young, much too pretty/CW-looking actors). M. Night managed to give his first 3 films a timeless feel while still keeping them in modern times. (This before he went off the deep end)

All in all though, Super 8 seems to be a step in right direction for Abrams. Here's hoping that his contempories ditch the sequels, remakes, and superhero flicks and go a similar route.

sophomorecritic said...

I've always thought you post some of the best reviews on the web.

Did anyone point out to you that it's Elle and not Dakota in the leading lady role?

I had sort of the same reaction as you, I thought the elements in the movie not involving the alien were pretty strong and I even used the same words "Strong sense of place."

I think the difference between the positive and negative reviews here is the degree to which we care about how sloppy the alien subplot is. In your take, the alien is just the McGuffin and you can compartmentalize him that way. I can see that line of thinking.

I also didn't notice how extensive a history this subgenre was but i didn't grow up in the 80's so interesting

Jason Bellamy said...

Fumero: I respect the desire for originality, and the comparison to M. Night's better efforts is an apt one. Of course, if it had been too original, it might not have provided me with such nostalgic pleasure -- but then that's just me.

SC: Damn. No, no one had pointed out my Fanning error. It's corrected. (I knew who it was, I just used the wrong name.) Thanks for pointing that out and for your very kind words. Much appreciated. I was discussing this film with a friend the other day who didn't enjoy it as much, in large part because of the alien, and I'm wondering if it helped that I managed to avoid the trailer and thus had no expectations of where the story would go. I haven't seen much this year that's kind of clung to me for days and weeks afterward, but this film did. A good time!