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Rapid Review: Super 8

June 10, 2011

There’s something appealing and almost romantic about a preteen’s view of the world.  It’s so tangible and in your face, and yet that perspective and that time is something that you can never capture again.  Like lightning in a bottle, the mysteries of childhood can haunt us and shape us more than any rapturous love affair ever could.

J.J. Abrams, in Super 8, has teamed up with a producer, Steven Spielberg, whose best work has often focused on that child’s eye view of things.  From E.T. to Close Encounters, to A.I., Spielberg is fascinated by kids and how they see the universe.  Abrams, in LOST, also showed us glimpses of this viewpoint in the early seasons with the character of Walt.

Joe and friends as the mystery begins

In Super 8,  we have the classic group of young friends – a group of five boys and the prerequisite girl – who have imagination to spare and all the time in the world to get caught up in things they shouldn’t.  It is 1979, the dawn of the technological age that will turn future generations into beings that never leave their couches.  How fitting that these six young folks are trying to make a zombie movie on their Super 8 camera.  

The center figure of this group is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), who is a model-maker and make up man for the movie within the movie.  He’s also the son of the town’s deputy, which will come into play later in the story.  Other notable members of the “kid” crew include director Charles (a hilarious Riley Griffiths), whose catchphrase is “That’s so mint”, and fireworks expert/future pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee).  The “girl” is luminous budding actress Alice, played by Elle Fanning (younger sis of Dakota).

Of course, while filming this fantastic zombie epic, they witness and catch on film a horrific train accident that sets forward the events later in the movie.   What is in that boxcar, and how it will impact this Ohio small town, well, that’s just something you will obviously have to experience for yourself.   Let’s just say it involves a science teacher with a past,  military bad guys and a heck of a summer vacation.

discussing the meaning of it all

The story is primarily from the perspective of sensitive and kind Joe, and like all great leading kid characters, he has had a tragedy in his life that makes him all too perceptive (and all too knowing) too soon. His father, Deputy Lamb, (played by Friday Night Lights’s Kyle Chandler) is still an emotional mess.  Of course, every great hero has to have something to overcome and triumph over in the end.  When mysterious disappearances and even more mysterious events start happening in the town of Lillian, Deputy Lamb is determined to butt heads with the military leader, Nelec (Noah Emmerich) in the best interests of his family and community.

Abrams has proved brilliantly, in both Star Trek and LOST, that he is a master at making you THINK you know what is going to happen next and then proving you, if not wrong, a little off course.   He is a magician skilled in the art of NOT showing you what is lurking just out of the camera’s view.  This is all the more powerful and frightening than having a CGI menace careening down on you.  It works well in the first half of  this movie, to say the least. Alas, in the second half, when people get dirtier, the fireworks start to get louder, and the action becomes more about the mystery than the kids,  Super 8 loses much of its wonder and charm.

Super 8 would perhaps be more interesting and more remarkable had Spielberg and his 80s contemporaries not tread such similar territory before.  It has all the earmarks of an early 80s epic, only with a 2011 budget and effects.  It’s a tense, fun, and at times, touching movie, but not a unique one.   We’ve seen this story and these characters before, and if anything, Super 8 is more nostalgia than masterwork.   I’m the perfect age for this type of flashback fun, but will a younger audience, more used to the “Michael Bay School of BOOM! and SMASH!”, be up for the first half of this film?  I hope so, but I have my doubts.

when the going gets tough...we stare

Still, it is a great nod to the past with stellar performances by all the young actors.  The opening scenes of the film establish a strong, genuinely funny camaraderie between friends and families that you rarely see in a summer blockbuster.  

Abrams created one of the most original and moving television series of all time with LOST, but on film he has only managed to bring us upgraded versions of other peoples’ visions.  Once Abrams stops giving nods and winks to his peers and the past, he might be on to something original and important to say in his own right.  He’s got the skills to spare.  We’re waiting.

NOTE:  Be sure and stay to watch during the credits.  It’s worth the extra five minutes.

Overall Grade: B +

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