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.