Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Super 8

J. J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg team up as director and producer, and create a very traditional Spielberg-like movie that also has an unmistakable Abrams-like modern feel, and is set in the seventies. How does this mash-up work? Let's just say that quality filmmaking which comes from a love of the craft is something that will always be in style.

It’s 1979; Joe Lamb is a thirteen year-old, pretty average sort of kid. But his mom recently died in a work accident, and things between him and his dad are strained and distant as they try to muddle through on their own. Time continues almost lifelessly. He hangs out with his buddies, riding bikes, joking around and making super 8 zombie movies. Things slowly settle into a normal. One midnight, filming secretly at a train station, the group of friends witness a mysterious train crash, and are caught in the middle of a dangerous event that none of them will ever forget – it’s like something straight out of a movie!

The plot is pretty straight-forward with no big twists, but through a unique attention to the deep characters and relationships, it’s compelling and entertaining, even without the sci-fi element. And I love that the monster, though fully created and fully capable of dominating the screen was hidden from us as long as it was hidden from our heroes. It’s a classic trick learned accidentally by Spielberg, and used here brilliantly by Abrams. In fact if I had to describe Super 8 in one word it would be classic. Not saying it’s “a classic” but that it is classic; totally, unabashedly classic. And sometimes that’s exactly what we need; a popcorn flick that can be called neither a mind-bender or mindless, but just a happy medium, well made, and ready for you to lose yourself in it.

Typically, film heroes are slightly older than the target audience, but even though this movie is about a bunch of kids, it’s not really a kid’s movie. It’s a nostalgic movie, and relating to younger characters helps that effect pleasantly. The kids really do make this movie. Reminiscent of The Goonies, they goof off, tease each other, and freak out with hilarious realism. And the actors playing them were equally amazing. Outstanding are Joel Courtney, playing the lead in his very first movie, but you would never know it by watching his superb performance, and Elle Fanning, playing Alice, the newcomer to the group of boys, is the most talented young actress I’ve seen. The other boys are more supporting cast, and their performances are lesser, but mostly only in terms of screen time. Obviously a lot of attention went to casting the kids, and the result was rewarding. Kyle Chandler as Joe’s dad and deputy of the town is also worth mentioning, but this movie really belongs to the kids.

It seems like it’s too easy to make a “successful” movie these days. Just throw together a script that involves saving the world, cast a bunch of pretty actors, and then drown everything in special effects. And people will throw down money watch it. No doubt a few movies fitting that description just popped into your head… like Transformers, perhaps? But not everyone goes that lazy way, some people thankfully still give their films all the attention they need, and are rewarded with something you could actually call art; a real, good movie. Abrams is one of those people, and with this movie, he creates a lovely homage to classic filmmaking, then goes a step further, adding in elements that make modern movies great as well. 

Sure, it has its share of flaws, but they’re easily ignorable in favor of the involving story and characters. Super 8 encourages us to be nostalgic, get lost, and feel at home in its brilliant, modern blast from the past, even if we never happened to have lived there. A sweet, thrilling and compelling ride, it reminds us yet again that well-made, thoughtful movies with heart can also be visually exciting, and full of fun, and laugh-out-loud moments. It’s the sort of movie that threatens to extinguish those half-hearted, factory line films, and though I doubt they will go extinct anytime soon, I will always look forward to when – every once in a while – a remarkable movie like this one jumps out and surprises us, then entertains and involves us through a contagious love for the cinema.

- 4.5/5 stars

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