Sunday, June 12, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: Super 8

SUPER 8-- 4 STARS

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Nostalgia is a free-flowing tribute that appears in many, many movies, whether you are aware of it or not as the audience.  So many directors and writers pay homage to the films and filmmakers that influenced them.  While they are professionals of their own right themselves, they too were once students of the craft and young fans just like us, sitting in darkened theaters watching inspiring dreams and visions unfold before them through the magic of movies.

Steven Spielberg is the quintessential and defining filmmaker of his generation.  From bursting on the scene with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1975 and 1977 and going on a roll of hit after hit (too many to list), his work is both respected and revered (take the entire drive of James Van Der Beek's character from TV's Dawson's Creek and every indie filmmaker on YouTube).  People forget that Spielberg too used to just be a kid with a 8mm camera in his backyard.  The Indiana Jones series was his way of paying homage to the cliffhanger serials of Old Hollywood that he grew up with.  Taking over deceased director Stanley Kubrick's final project, A.I., was his way of showing respect to the greats that came before him.  You have to think his Jewish upbringing stirred his greatest achievement, Schindler's List, in some way, shape, or form.

Spielberg, at 64, is already a living legend who shows now signs of slowing down (his latest two directorial efforts, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret Unicorn and War Horse, both open this upcoming holiday season).  With the new decade upon us and E.T. approaching 30 years old, it was definitely high time that he too gets the nostalgia and homage treatment from one of his disciples and contemporaries.

Bring in Super 8 and J.J. Abrams, the brilliant creator of TV hits Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe and an improving film director himself with Mission: Impossible III and the immensely daring Star Trek reboot to his credit.  The treat here is that Abrams didn't just get to develop an homage to "Spielbergian" themes with his own original work, he got to collaborate hands-on with Spielberg himself.  How many of us endlessly imitate our favorite singer, athlete, or idol, and then how many of us ever get to actually work with them side-by-side?

Super 8 is just that kind of dream project for J.J. Abrams.  The spectacular new film is a love letter to works like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, and Spielberg's own youth as a teenage filmmaker, while still being ever bit as pulsing, poignant, and mysterious as anything Abrams creates.  Super 8 is a modern AND old-school sci-fi nut's dream come true.

If you have seen the very mysterious trailers, then you know the just tip of the iceberg in terms of set-up.  You've probably seen how a bunch of wide-eyed kids are filming their own movie when they witness a massive train wreck that sets off strange events in their idyllic small Ohio factory town.  All of that is true, but what you don't see in the commercials, and what's laid out wonderfully in the film itself, is a heartfelt structure of loss, forgiveness, and innocence.  Super 8 is undoubtedly a thriller, but carries much more clout than that.

You see, the core of Super 8 lies in 13-year-old Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney).  He has recently lost his mother in an off-screen factory accident, leaving him alone to grieve with his deputy sheriff father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler of the underappreciated and now-cancelled TV series Friday Night Lights).  To get away, Joe immerses himself with his passion for creative art by making models and doing makeup for his best friend Charles's (newcomer Riley Griffiths) student-competition Romero-esque zombie film. Charles leads a rag-tag group of movie dorks that obsess over production value and get the cute local neighbor with a car, Alice (Elle Fanning, acting more naturally than her over-direct big sister Dakota ever will), to co-star as the female lead.

An important scene in their script brings them to the abandoned train depot on the edge of town when that fateful and violent U.S. Air Force train derailment that we all know is coming occurs, setting off dire ramifications for the whole town.  Don't worry.  Just as the marketing is promising mystery, this review is stopping here to preserve just that.

What can be said is how sharply calculated Super 8 is as an amalgamation of what both Spielberg and Abrams separately do best.  You see, the important detail to a making a good homage is in the suggestion not the replication.  A good homage accentuates what is best about what it is saluting, but doesn't outright copy or remake it.  The new guy still should put his stamp on it.

The Spielberg touches are obvious, but not ridiculous.  Joe Lamb isn't Elliot from E.T. and isn't Mikey from The Goonies either, but the character has respectful shades of both.  The single-parent situation is not unlike a lot of Spielberg's films as well.  Charles and his teenage film peers act, talk, cuss, and come across as gang of Goonies or The Sandlot from a different time, but are far more realistic than those two teams of caricatures.  The sunsets and small town vistas hark back to the Muncie, Indiana homefront of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as does the suggestion of something extra-terrestrial going on.

Abrams's two cents are more than represented as well and complete the picture.  As you know from his resume, he's an expert at building suspense and mystery and that matches with Spielberg's ability to just the same.  People are going to think Cloverfield, but it's better than that.  At the same time, for anyone who's watched Lost behind the mysteries and questions knows that Abrams can do drama and heart as good as Spielberg can as well.  Star Trek shows Abrams can make fire from the kindling of a young unknown cast, and he's made movie stars out of Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning here.

Put the two geniuses and their specialties together and you've got arguably the best movie of the summer, and it's only June.  Like Spielberg, Abrams is a superior technical filmmaker and everything from Michael Giacchino's score to ILM's special effects add immense detail and scope to the great storytelling already present.  It's a slam dunk to call Super 8 this summer's most original movie, even with all of the nostalgic and 1970's period touches, among all the slate of reboots and sequels.   Someday (they might even be doing it already), people are going to emulate J.J. Abrams the way they emulate Spielberg.

LESSON #1: THE IGNORANCE OF "MOVIE MILITARY"-- One clever (maybe tiresome to some) movie cliche that Spielberg and Abrams conveniently use is the "ignorant movie military."  You know the stereotype.  The movie military (see ANY disaster or science-fiction movie) that shoots first, asks questions later, and takes whatever they please.  They are the same ones always trying to control what they can't.  They're also the ones with the square-jawed, gung-ho brass that boss around the equally-if-not-more intelligent members of the public and scientific fields around them when those people are trying to tell them they are wrong.  It's all too funny and predictable (yet, on purpose).

LESSON #2: FORGIVING AN ACCIDENT AND DEALING WITH FAMILY LOSS-- More than the big train wreck, what really starts and culminates Super 8's journey is the Lamb family dealing with the loss of its matriarch.  Joe has to find the confidence to move on and Jackson has to forgive not only who he feels is responsible for his wife's accidental death, but also himself for letting his son down in the months that have followed.  Asking, accepting, or receiving forgiveness is always the first step to closure and moving on.  That need multiplies in a tragedy.

LESSON #3: THE SPIRIT OF THE TEENAGE YOUTH-- Something that Spielberg has done so well throughout his career and Abrams follows here in Super 8, is looking at the world through the eyes of children.  Other than Kyle Chandler's great work, the nearly sole point-of-view for the entire film is that of the teenagers.  Their thoughts, ambitions, emotions, fears, and reactions steer the movie.  So often unrealistic and misunderstood in many films, few movies nail the true teenage spirit by using actual teenagers instead of 20-something actors pretending to act young and only come across as wise beyond their years (sorry John Hughes and James Dean).  No offense to Chandler, but Super 8 would be significantly less effective and poignant if told from an adult perspective.

LESSON #4: THE ROLE OF AMATEUR FILMMAKING-- Spielberg is the perfect example of this, filming amateur 8mm WWII movies in his childhood neighborhood.  Even though our media today is inundated with the YouTube world where any moron with a cell phone, camcorder, or webcam can make their own "movie" for the planet to see, us audience members need to thank and not make fun of that "movie dork" we knew in junior high and high school.  Those are the creative minds that grow up to be guys like Steven and J.J..  Charles, Joe, and their group have that same effervescent, ambitious, and peer-misunderstood creative spirit and camaraderie that only leads to great things.  Everyone had to get their start somewhere.