6 August 2011

Movie Review: Super 8


B+

Super 8
2011, 112mins, 12
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writer: J.J. Abrams
Cast includes: Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Noah Emmerich, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths
UK Release Date: 5th August 2011

Presented as an ode to the Amblin features of old, “Super 8” quickly establishes itself as one of the summer’s best blockbusters. The screenplay isn’t perfect but director J.J. Abrams manages to instill into “Super 8” the same filmmaking qualities that the very best Spielberg flicks are characterized by, namely the balancing of affecting characterization and excitable action sequences. Abrams guides a talented young cast through a mysterious and at times thrilling plotline, only occasionally falling foul to small scripting missteps. “Super 8” is a classy charmer and a heartfelt celebration of what it means to be a filmmaker.

“Super 8” opens in 1979, with Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) quietly devastated by the untimely passing of his beloved mother. Left only with his sombre Police Deputy father (Kyle Chandler), Joe finds happiness in the company of his peers, namely by helping buddy Charles (Riley Griffiths) complete his low-budget zombie movie. Partaking also allows him a chance to bond with his crush Alice (Elle Fanning), a girl otherwise well beyond his reach. Whilst out on a night shoot, the youngsters witness a massive train accident, escaping just before a mighty military presence arrives on the scene. Initially reluctant to discuss the subject, they eventually come to realize the train’s cargo was anything but ordinary and that it might be connected with the upsurge in missing pets, electronics and people.

Working with younger actors is always a dicey proposition, but Abrams has done a phenomenal job casting the kids in “Super 8”. The most recognizable of the bunch is probably Elle Fanning (sister of Dakota), so the fact she emerges as the best is no surprise. Fanning has a strikingly complex arc in “Super 8”, she’s not simply on hand to occupy the skin of Joe’s first love. The actress delivers several terrifically resonant moments, always letting subtle melancholy bubble beneath her dialogue. I won’t spoil any of the film’s twists, but Fanning deserves plaudits for allowing Alice’s developments to ring so true. Joel Courtney is more or less just as adept, the teen delivering an appreciatively mature debut performance. It’s an amiable and phenomenally naturalistic turn, sincere and devoid of exaggeration. The rest of this screwy crew are used largely to concoct a hectic atmosphere; snappy dialogue and their energetic contributions helping to depict a warm and believable interpretation of friendship. “Super 8” definitely belongs to its less experienced protagonists, but a few of the adult participants do leave a mark. Kyle Chandler is stern but sympathetic as Joel’s distressed father whilst Noah Emmerich oozes menace as a particularly dubious military figure. Abrams always has his primary focus on the children, but “Super 8” does enough with the aforementioned grown-ups to make them memorable.

I suppose it’s not much of a spoiler to admit there’s a monster running amok (early marketing made that pretty clear), Abrams lunging to homage everything from “E.T” to “Jurassic Park” through the beast. The early and much eerier set-pieces involving the creature are acceptably intense but visually shy, Abrams wisely adopting a “less is more” stance for most of the runtime. Things explode in the final act as the military unleash a hail of chaos and the monster goes on its own personal rampage, allowing “Super 8” to fully revel in its blockbuster aesthetics. The opening train crash is spectacular to look at, but the finale offers a host of more involving pleasures, including a grueling attack on a bus and the infiltration of the animal’s dwelling. The film’s dramatic climax is less consistent, largely thanks to the script’s jumbled presentation of the monster. At times the creature is savage, and whilst that’s effectively explained through some later exposition, it doesn’t sit comfortably with the tame final showdown. It’s obvious how “Super 8” wants its ending to be interpreted, but at least where the creature is concerned, the film never completely earns it.

The human relationships are much more rewarding, especially the dynamics between Joe, his father and Alice. Abrams crafts these sections lovingly, allowing us to care for the characters during the berserk conclusion. Amidst the maelstrom of fire and carnage audiences will actively root for the actors, because much like the picture as a whole they have a soul. Also pleasant to observe is the authentic enthusiasm for the filmmaking process, Abrams clearly tapping into his past as the kids try to assemble their own horror flick. The result is played entirely for laughs (it accompanies the credits) but the giggles are never cynical or toxic. Abrams loves what he does, fondly reimagining his own early 8mm forays here.

Technically Abrams is a slightly more aggressive filmmaker than Spielberg, a touch that helps separate “Super 8” somewhat from the productions it elects to homage. The camera work is faster and flashier, but the elegant and substantive cinematography feels similar to numerous Amblin adventures. The CGI and pyrotechnics evidenced here are top drawer but the creature design itself feels a bit unremarkable. Indeed the antagonist in “Super 8” is a ringer for the same part in “Cloverfield”, a film which Abrams also had a large hand in. However unlike that picture “Super 8” is interested in delivering more than just a roller-coaster ride. It’s a nostalgic treat, packed with intelligence and heart. That’s what I call entertainment.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

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