Friday, June 10, 2011

Production Value

When the teaser trailer for Super 8 began appearing, it was clear that we as a people would not be receiving any detailed information about the film in question. When you're touting a big name like J.J. Abrams as your director, that's hardly a surprise; the creator of television shows Lost, Alias and Fringe, Abrams has long been known for withholding precious information from his audience to create a sense of mystery, under the assumption that it would bring more people in to explore the worlds he creates. To a high degree, his success on television is a testament to that idea. However, this isn't something he's done so far in the films he has directed. Both Mission Impossible III and his reboot of Star Trek were more or less straightforward stories with simple twists, and nothing was really kept secret leading up to their releases. Super 8 changed that, however. Playing out as an homage to the early works of Steven Spielberg (who also produced this title), later ads gave us little more than we had originally, including some recognizable cast in Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning and Ron Eldard. Still there is little information about what the people of a small town in the 1970's is facing, as any images of the alien/monster/whatever remained hidden from view. I'm not afraid to say I was of two minds about whether I might appreciate Super 8 when it finally hit the big screen. On one hand, like many others I've been a fan of Abrams's work, and having loved his take on Trek I wasn't going to say no to more from this talented artist. On the other hand, I can think of better inspirations than Spielberg, who has gotten more cliche in his filmmaking in the past decade or so. Sure, if you want to be inspired by his early work (Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind), go right ahead, but this is a man who has gotten used to living off the merits of his name and not necessarily his talent since these early films, and even when he he is credited as a producer you can tell the exact moment when he unofficially takes over from the director, his style obvious, obtuse, and unoriginal. His name alone is enough to make me wince these days, as reminders of how he ruined the last Indiana Jones film still ring in my mind. It would take a lot to prove to me that he couldn't ruin this particular title, despite the high levels of anticipation radiating from my friend Southland Dan. The two of us decided to take in the midnight opening, and now that I've sufficiently woken up, I can say that this film wasn't at all what I was expecting.

Well, there goes the neighborhood.
Helping his friends compose a short film for a local competition, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) witnesses an enormous train derailment near his hometown of Lillian, Ohio. After somehow escaping the insanely destructive crash with his life, Joel sees SOMETHING escape the wrecked train, but does not tell the others, who all swear to not tell anyone about what they saw, lest they get in trouble for being where they shouldn't. Soon, strange things start happening around town. At first it's just property damage and theft by unknown parties. That's bad enough until dogs start running away en masse, people begin disappearing and the military arrives to clean up their wrecked train with a an agenda that they don't plan to share with the locals. Soon Joe's Deputy father Jackson Lamb (Chandler) is butting heads with the soldiers and the teens realize something that had been on that train was responsible for what was happening to their small town, and decide to do something about it.

Is "movie within a movie" the new "dream within a dream"?
To describe Super 8 as E.T. meets Cloverfield with a dash of The Goonies tossed in would be perhaps oversimplifying things a bit. Yes, there is a group of kids who stumble upon a mystery involving conspiracy and an alien, and the alien is anything other than the Reeces Pieces-loving predecessors we're familiar with, hearkening back to the Abrams-produced 2008 film. Like many earlier genre films,.the creature barely makes an appearance on screen and is more a means to tell the reunification story of divided father and son Jackson and Joe. The scenes where it attacks are fairly classic, with the "victim" often turning to face it (off-screen of course) and screaming before they are taken away. It's hardly anything breathtaking, but the effectiveness of these scenes is based in Abrams's abilities as a director to make sure you're looking at the wrong place so that you're not expecting when something shocking comes to pass.

The military takes to confiscating any copies of subversive material... like this copy of "Princess Bride"
Of course, what makes the film so indelible is the sympathy of its characters. While many of the people portrayed in the film are really one-note parts, it's the quality of those notes that set the stage for the film's enjoyment. You expect strong performances from career actors like Chandler and Eldard, who are experienced character actors who play a Sheriff's Deputy and a drunk malcontent, respectively, and their animosity towards one another is one of the driving forces of the film. Their children, played by Courtney and Fanning, are even more impressive. Elle Fanning has done nothing but impress me since I first saw her in last year's Somewhere, and it's really scary to think that she will turn out more talented than older sister Dakota, who is already one of the best young actresses in Hollywood. Courtney also proves himself extremely talented, and while not as strong as Fanning acting-wise, he more than handles one of the few complicated characters in the film. The retinue of young actors cast as their friends are fun and funny, but are slightly hampered by being simplistic, such as Ryan Lee as a young pyromaniac obsessed with blowing things up. Riley Griffiths is the best character-wise of them as Joe's bossy best friend, but they all have their charms and provide many of the laughs that keep you smiling at the film even through its slight narrative flaws.

When describing this film to friends, be sure to mention all the perplexed stares
Those flaws are few and far between, however. Amazing special effects are in play here, with the amazing train wreck only the highlight of an overall well-done SFX team that makes everything look good even when they don't have to. Combined with the director's talents for creating amazing shots, that ability transforms the film to a whole other level. Still, that department is one of the few (besides acting) which came out flawless. Besides some confusion as to why the creature is kidnapping people and damaging property when it would probably just be better off simply going into hiding is never fully understood (except for the fact that without that, there would be no movie), the overall design of the creature when it is finally revealed will likely be disappointing to anyone who has already seen Cloverfield's beast. Perhaps it would have been a boon to bring someone else in and redraft some of Abrams's script (yes, he wrote the film, too) to work out some of the kinks, as the creature's motivation was lost to me on most issues.

Those looking for a new Goonies movie apply within
That doesn't hurt Super 8 for long, however, as the film manages to be charming, funny, and scary at all the right times, even if brains weren't necessarily in the Wizard's bag to begin with. With great acting, amazing effects and a commendable effort to take the sci-fi genre back to its heyday, it scores high as the #4 film of 2011. I'll be the very first to admit that I didn't have such high hopes for this release, and to be fair it's far from a perfect film. But it is a VERY good one, and one that you can't help but be charmed by. I had a smile on my face for about 90% of the film's run time, and the movies this year that have done that can be counted on only one hand. Abrams's ability is certainly trending up, and I'm already looking forward to the next film that he pulls from his sleeve.


Uncle Bob said...

Great job Gianni ! I look forward to seing this film, but first must see Midnight in Paris. ( I want my Woody !)

John "Gianni" Anderson said...

Midnight in Paris will probably be the next big screen film I review, but this coming week figures to be mostly rentals. We'll see what happens.