Friday, June 24, 2011

678 - Super 8 review



“Super 8” is fan fiction on the macro level, one filmmaker's eight figure love letter to another filmmaker. J.J. Abrams, director of “Star Trek” and “Mission Impossible 3” (but perhaps best known for his contributions to the TV series “Lost”) is clearly a font of fondness for Stephen Spielberg, particularly his pre-90's work. There's a bit of “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (aliens), “Jaws” (deadly creatures), and “Always” (father issues). The problem with such an imitation is that it invites a contrast to vastly superior work, never a good prospect when submitting a film for public consumption and critical analysis.

Abrams, who wrote the screenplay, spent a great deal of his childhood filming movies on Super 8mm, a format popular with amateur filmmakers before the digital revolution. It's thus appropriate that Abrams' protagonists are a group of kids in 1980, working diligently on finishing a short film on Super 8mm. These moments are the film's best, Abrams' familiarity with the details of childhood movie-making infusing “Super 8” with an otherwise lacking emotional and practical realism. Those with even minimal experience making their own movies with friends will recognize the guerrilla use of shooting locations, the cheap but heartfelt effects, the desperate attempts at authenticity.

But lines such as “He doesn't understand his son,” laborious with pop psychology, betray the script as inauthentic. Abrams has clearly learned the tone of Spielberg (who's a producer here), but little of the auteur's gift for storytelling, and none of his mastery of the medium's aesthetic qualities. When one watches “Jaws,” one of Spielberg's first and now over 35-years-old, the presence of a great is readily obvious from the camerawork, the pacing, the way story pieces are neatly locked into place. Here, we're expected not to notice when the kids have adopt blasé towards being in the middle of a train crash and witnessing their science teacher stick a gun in their faces.

In a sense, the draw of “Super 8,” a disgusting, expensively animated creature, is but a backdrop to the kids' movie. While shooting at a train station, the group bears witness to a spectacular train derailment, from which the creature, an enormous, rather brilliant being, escapes. Their small Ohio town subsequently suffers an array of unfortunate incidents; disappearing appliances, missing persons, power outages, and an invasion by a military officer searching for the train's valuable cargo. Exactly how a 15 foot tall, one ton alien is able to sneak throughout a town stealing microwaves without being seen is never explained, and though we're expected to shrug off questions like that, how can one enjoy a narrative so clumsily constructed? When did the world collectively decide that good scriptwriting was irrelevant when a feature is released in June and supported by an endless budget?

“Super 8” features some wonderful performances out of its child actors, particularly the lead, Joel Courtney, and Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota. They handle moments of emotional stress, youthful fancy, and heartrending discovery convincingly, bringing great pathos to their characters, adding real suspense to the moments where they face danger. But if you see or have seen the film, try imagining the story were the protagonists absent from it. Does that really have much affect on what happens in the world of “Super 8”? No.

2 out of 5

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