Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Super 8

Do you remember the original television advertisements for The Matrix?

Now, if you've seen the movie, that trailer more or less makes sense.  In 1999, though, that was just a string of random images and a sorry-ass excuse for not telling anyone what the story for the damn movie was.  I ended up seeing The Matrix on its first night in theaters, but only because my friend and I couldn't think of anything else to do with our time; I recall arguing that we had to have something better to do, when watching movies is all we did.  That's right, I argued against watching a movie to a friend who loves movies more than I do.  That's how much the trailer pissed me off.  Of course, the first Matrix was all kinds of awesome, so the story had a happy ending and I felt dumb for objecting, but I find myself reacting similarly when movie trailers purposefully frustrate potential viewers.

...and this was my first glimpse at what would become Super 8, the latest film from the producer of The Blair Witch Monster Cloverfield.  I was predictably unimpressed.  In the intervening year or so between seeing that trailer and watching the film, the only additional knowledge I had was that the movie featured child actors.  Awesome; kids and a trainsplosion.  But summer is upon us, and my lovely wife loves her summer blockbusters (and J.J. Abrams), so I ended up watching this movie, too, on its opening weekend.  I'm so weak.

Here's the good news: the story requires a certain amount of suspense, so I won't be giving away too much of the plot.  Well, it's good news for me, because it involves less typing.  Super 8 begins by focusing on Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a middle school-aged kid whose mother tragically died recently, and whose father, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), buried himself in his deputy sheriff work instead of consoling his only child.  Like most kids, Joe is surprisingly resilient and he intends to spend his summer vacation helping his loud-mouthed best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), film a short movie to be entered into a statewide competition for teenage filmmakers.  Charles is the director, Joe handles the makeup, Cary (Ryan Lee) is every single zombie in their movie (as well as their expert in firecrackers), and the other two friends are there to round out the cast.  After reading up on screenwriting, Charles decides that he needs a romantic interest in his zombie film, so he somehow convinces the very pretty Alice (Elle Fanning) to join the team.  The other thing that Charles realized was important to filmmaking was production value, so he decided to fake his; to get realistic background action, he gets the whole crew to sneak out at night and act at the local train station, so they can capture the train passing by in their shots.
Great idea, fatty.
As the trailer suggests, though, their evening at the train station was fairly eventful.  While the kids did their best to not die in train wreckage, their super 8 camera keeps filming, capturing something on film that they were never meant to see.
Super man, girl, monkey, dog, cat, horse, and that looks like mom and dad on the right: Super Eight.

That's all I care to say about the story of Super 8, but I would like to point out how silly the title is.  Yes, I understand that the kids were making a crappy short film on super 8 film, but does anyone really think that film is the focus of this story?  Of course not.  It's kind of like when a band writes a song with an obviously memorable chorus, like "I bathe in vanilla pudding," and end up naming the song something pretentious or obtuse, like "Onyx."  This is, in many ways, a monster movie.  It's deeper than that, I'll admit, but this title sucks.  Thank goodness producer Steven Spielberg didn't follow this model when naming his movies; I don't know how excited I would have been to see Raiders of the Lost Ark if it was called "Whip."

Whatever the title, I was pleasantly surprised with the acting in this movie.  Having child actors as the primary characters is always a risky choice, but these kids were pretty good.  Joel Courtney was very appealing in the lead role, projecting a natural awkward charisma that reminded me of Patrick Fugit.  Elle Fanning was flat-out awesome as his leading lady; I usually will give a grudging acknowledgement of good performances from child actors --- let's be honest, most of the time they get attention for just acting a little older than they are --- but she was very impressive.  This wasn't a powerhouse performance, but she showed a lot of natural talent and good instincts in the dramatic moments.  Keep in mind that this is basically a creature feature, so the fact that any actor had effective dramatic moments at all is impressive, much less one young actress having several.  And she's only thirteen!

The other kids were okay, but those two clearly carried the film.  Riley Griffiths was pretty good as the kind of obnoxious friend and Ryan Lee was occasionally funny as the group's resident pyromaniac, but that's about it.  Kyle Chandler was pretty decent as Joe's father, but I found his more heroic moments a little far-fetched.  Ron Eldard played Alice's drunken father and was serviceable, I guess.  Noah Emmerich was similarly okay, once again playing an untrustworthy character; maybe it's the pock marks, but I can never trust that guy to not be evil in movies.  Or in real life, probably.  Former 7th Heaven kid David Gallagher had a bit part as a creepy stoner, and that was good for a few chuckles.  Another child star, AJ of the jail-bait pop group Aly & AJ, played the fat kid's sexy sister.  Aside from the two child leading roles, the acting was fine, but not spectacular.

J.J. Abrams is better known as a producer and creative force than he actually is as a director.  Despite having twenty years of producer credits, this is only his third feature film directorial effort, after Mission: Impossible III and the Star Trek reboot.  Personally, I don't usually have strong feelings about Abrams as a director, but I thought he did a pretty good job with Super 8.  Working with kids is always difficult, but he got some very solid performances out of this group and he balanced drama, humor, and the occasional fright pretty well.  I'm sure more than a few people will notice a clear stylistic homage to co-producer Steven Spielberg in the way the film is shot and how the mysterious creature is revealed; it is quite possible that you might have flashbacks to E.T. or Close Encounters while watching this movie.  That's an okay choice, I suppose --- if you're going to make a movie that relies on the wonder of children, borrow from the best --- but I wish Abrams had put more of his own spin on things.  Instead, he did a very good job as a Spielbergian imitator.  Abrams' inexperience as a director shows up from time to time, as many of his dramatic shots are nearly identical.
I hope you like people looking anxiously at something off-camera, because it happens a lot.
No, seriously, a lot.  As in over...

...and over...
...and over...
...and over again.  Will this bother most people?  Probably not, at least in their initial viewing.  Besides, that's more of a stylistic shortcoming than an inability to direct.

I don't want to give the impression that I did not enjoy Super 8.  I did.  It was the most adorable alien/creature/monster movie I have ever seen.  It has been a long time since anyone made a movie in the vein of The Goonies --- an occasionally scary adventure for kids that adults can enjoy --- so it was nice to see that style revisited.  The action was well-directed, the special effects looked good, none of the child actors were terrible and most were actually effective, and the pace was reasonable.  The film's greatest asset is in how well the attitude and wonder of teenagers was captured.  It's hard to accurately depict teenagers in a positive light --- they are, after all, inhuman trolls, one and all --- but Abrams was able to make these kids likeable and believable.  As far as PG-13 movies aimed at kids go, this one was a lot of fun.
Aww...the one with the hat thinks he's a person!

My biggest gripe with Super 8 is with the writing.  It's not bad, but I wish it was a little less simple.  The bad guys are really obviously bad.  The good guys pull off some truly unlikely heroics.  And that whole trainsplosion...?  Really?  There has to be a better way to stop a train.  None of that makes a huge impact on the story at large, but for a movie that tries so hard to be rooted in the reality of 1979, moments like that (and the Walkman joke) receive a raised eyebrow from me.  I still like the movie, but I don't know if the writing will keep it from being the classic that it is obviously striving to be.

Another limitation of this movie is the setting.  For a movie presumably aimed at kids and filled with childlike wonder, it sure is pressing all the nostalgia buttons for people born in the seventies and early eighties.  Is a thirteen year-old in 2011 going to return to this movie, set almost twenty years before he/she was born, often enough to make this a classic?  I don't think so.  I think this film is a love letter to Spielberg in his prime, and that's okay.  It might not be as epic or as memorable as it wants to be, but Super 8 does a great job as an homage.


  1. I actually didn't think Super 8 was aimed at kids, or viewed as a kids movie. I think the idea was to be an homage to those Spielbergian movies, as well as to the love of making films that Speilber and Abrams have both carried throughout their lives. As a result of both of those things, I felt the movie was targeted more towards people of the ET/Close Encounters generation. We are the people who can truly understand the nostalgia of the movie.

  2. I agree that the ET/Close Encounters generation is who will enjoy this movie most, but I really think the point of view of this movie indicates the intended audience.

    Personally, I think it is supposed to be an homage, but ended up unintentionally nostalgic --- if it was on purpose, it would have had an adult narrator, like The Sandlot or Stand By Me. That's not a bad thing, as long as it finds its audience, but I can see that nostalgia factor limiting its long-term audience.

  3. No mention of the film's co-star?! The Blue F'n Streaks of light in every night shot? I guess Abrams worked so well with Blue F'n Streaks in Star Trek he had to bring him back.

  4. Hmm...that almost makes me want to re-watch Mission: Impossible III to see if BFS are in that, too. Almost. All I remember about that movie is how annoyed Phillip Seymour Hoffman seemed whenever he had to prove that he was evil.

  5. I liked Super 8 but the Blue F'n Streaks of Light were very distracting to me. I noticed them everytime they showed up which was a lot. Now I'm curious if they made an appearance in Mission Impossible III since you mentioned the film. If they did, I don't think they were used as much as in Super 8 or Star Trek. Seriously, they appear so much they should be listed as a as a character in the Cast Credits. :-)

  6. Fact: Blue F'n Streaks only gets to costar in JJ Abrams movies because he's a co-owner of their production company, Bad Robot.

  7. Just rewatched this flick, being privy of it, Blue F'n Streaks almost makes the movie unwatchable.