Wednesday 17 August 2011

Movie Review: SUPER 8 (2011)

Wednesday 17 August 2011
written & directed by J.J Abrams
starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard,
Noah Emmerich, Bruce Greenwood & Ron Eldard

It's a movie echoing hyphenate J.J Abrams' childhood, told through the prism of those wonderful early-'80s Steven Spielberg movie; where being a kid meant you were part of a gang (treehouse and dog optional), had a bedroom full of NASA posters and B-movie memorabilia, rode a BMX, used a walkie-talkie, and lived in a small-town nestled in a beautiful valley. More importantly, your ordinary life was destined for the extraordinary: perhaps due to the discovery of a treasure map (The Goonies), a visionary dream (Explorers), the arrival of iconic monsters (Monster Squad), or, in Super 8's case, the accidental release of a dangerous alien...

Our mop-haired 13-year-old hero is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney); half-orphaned by a factory accident that claimed his mother's life, he now lives with his bereft father (Kyle Chandler), the town's Deputy Sheriff, and has bottled his grief by investing time making a homemade zombie movie with pals Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths), Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Cary (Ryan Lee). After soliciting the help of older neighbour Alice (Elle Fanning), who proves to be a brilliant actress (cemented by an adolescent version of Naomi Watts' audition scene from Mulholland Dr.), the gang get more than they bargained for while filming on the outskirts of town. It's there a passing military train derails one cloudless night—in spectacular, cacophonous fashion—and, unbeknownst to the young filmmakers, its extra-terrestrial cargo escapes...

From there it's E.T-meets-Iron Giant, with dashes of Jaws and Jurassic Park (and Jeepers Creepers 2?) stirred into Abrams' melting pot. Thankfully, it would be wrong to outright condemn Super 8 for adhering to genre formula, as its intention is to evoke the era when a "summer blockbuster" had to rely on a sense of wonder rather than the wonder of spectacle; where ideas, story and characters were enough to draw audiences. F/X sequences were the parcel drops that kept audiences nourished on the way through a story—they didn't gorge on a Transformers 3-like banquet, which leave you overdosed on nothing but visual stimuli. Abrams manages to nail this old-school approach perfectly; so much so that a part of me felt it was a shame his alien wasn't achieved using stop-motion (CGI almost looks misplaced in a 1979 context), but I suppose there's only so far Abrams' could afford to keep his head in the past.

There's heart and respect to Super 8 that's sadly been a rarity in children's movies these past few decades, once kids started to be spoonfed digital phantoms, photo-realistic tragedies, and rapid-fire editing that batters their minds into submission. Abrams resurrects the gentle spirit of youthful adventure here, helped by some great child stars who give the story real character and, for anyone over-30, a lovely swim in nostalgia. The puppy love between Joel and Alice is touchingly handled, while the thorny issue between their respective fathers provides decent human drama in-between waiting for the alien's back-story, motivation, and escape plan to be explained to us.

While there's nothing that isn't in some way derivative about Super 8, it's fantastic love-letter to a bygone age, and if Tarantino's allowed to recycle '70s exploitation cinema, I see no just cause for Abrams to face criticism for doing exactly the same thing with a more mainstream genre. The individual elements may be familiar to many, but they're blended in such a way as to appear fresh, and the whole thing will probably delight contemporary youngsters who never even lived during this time (either in reality, or vicariously through movies).

Overall, Super 8's a great throwback movie that only suffers because its limited ambition means it's rather predictable, and there are some nitpicks that'll stick in your craw. Why does the alien's magnetized spaceship only attract specific metal objects, for example? But when focusing on its young cast, while refreshing memories of early Amblin movies, Super 8's a pleasing alien-on-the-loose caper that knows exactly what it's doing. I just wish it had subverted more of the genre's conventions (beyond having a menacing alien that isn't anthropomorphized too much), but it's mostly content to replicate the tropes with loving care, attention, and effection.

Paramount Pictures / 112 minutes