Saturday, June 11, 2011
I need to confess that I have not been a big fan of J.J. Abrams or Steven Spielberg (post- "Empire of the Sun") so I went into "Super 8" (opened June 10 throughout San Diego) with guarded optimism.
I know opening with a confession like that will likely just give people ammo to complain about my review but I wanted to be honest because I was pleasantly surprised by the film despite those feelings going in. It seems that Abrams and Spielberg have, by collaborating, made each other better. Abrams is talented and sometimes inspired but he's not a great storyteller; whereas Spielberg is a great storyteller but he tends toward too much sentiment and cliché. But on "Super 8," with Spielberg producing, and Abrams writing and directing, they each seem to have raised the bar for the other. The end result is a delightful and fast-paced summer film. It's as if Abrams revisited "Cloverfield" and fixed what was wrong in that film, and Spielberg revisited "E.T." and took the best elements to pass on to Abrams.
If you have not seen any of the trailers then this plot summary will contain spoilers but I am not saying anything that is not alluded to or shown outright in the trailers for the film.
The focus of the film is a group of young kids trying to make a super 8 film. As they shoot one crucial scene, a train derails next to them. Just before the crash, Joe (Joel Courtney) notices that a truck had driven onto the tracks and into the train. The kids flee the scene but when they process the super 8 film, they notice something else strange about the crash. This draws them deeper into a mystery, and their presence at the crash site stirs the interest of the military, which has come out to do clean up and spin control. So now the kids, the town, and the military are in a frenzy of activity as they deal with the ensuing chaos caused by some unknown entity on a rampage.
Abrams dealt with a similar scenario in "Cloverfield." In that film, it was a monster terrorizing New York and we followed a group of hipsters as they tried to escape the creature and survive. The problem with "Cloverfield" was that the characters were so unlikable and uninteresting that you wished the monster ate them faster. Plus, the monster was never really shown or explained. If the film had given us a better story and more compelling characters then keeping the monster on the periphery would have been fine. Or if the monster was the focus than we could have done without strong characters. In the end, "Cloverfield" failed for me because I didn't care what happened to the idiot characters and I had no monster -- like Godzilla, King Kong, Alien, or Predator -- to rivet me.
In "Super 8," Abrams corrects all the issues that bothered me in "Cloverfield." We have characters that we are interested in, and we don't mind being kept in the dark about what's after them precisely because we do care about the characters. In fact, "Super 8," would still be a fun film even without a mysterious thing on the periphery. If the film were only about these kids making their movie, I still would enjoy it.
The charm and appeal of this film for me was that the kids are desperately trying to make a super 8 zombie movie tribute to George Romero. Their film looks like so many super 8 films I saw or worked on. The passion they had to make movies stirred a wonderful sense of nostalgia not just for my student filmmaking days but also for the medium of super 8 itself. I think that joy of making films as a kid is something very near and dear to both Abrams and Spielberg, and that's where the most honest and genuine emotions in this film are too. I love how one kid has to play all the zombies in the film, how the kids cast themselves as a adults, and how they try to come up with cool effects despite no budget. Plus all the child actors are great and thoroughly believable. These kids and their passion to make a film give "Super 8" its heart and soul. And please stay through the credits as Abrams includes their finished zombie film alongside the end title. I think the kids' film was more enjoyable to me than Abrams' film.
In showing the super 8 footage, though, I do wish Abrams had taken a tad more care to show the medium as it really it. There needs to be splices in the final film and a 24 frame audio lag at the edits. Anyone who has ever worked in super 8 remembers those things vividly, and that attention to detail would have made the film even sweeter. It also would have been nice to see the kids at a movie theater enjoying a horror film together and talking about it, or at home watching one -- just so we could get a feel for how their passion for horror emerged and was continually fed.
Abrams, who also wrote the script, still has some annoying plotting issues. At the beginning, the kids flee the train wreck as hundreds of soldiers advance. One soldier points to the kids' car (which looks like Bumblebee from "Transformers") as it drives away and says he didn't get the plates. But apparently that's no big deal and the kids aren't worth following. Really? Considering how much energy and resources the military end up using to find the kids, you'd think a jeep or maybe a helicopter or a group of soldiers would be sent out in pursuit. But no. Then an officer finds an empty box of super 8 film and never thinks to go to the only shop in town that processes it to try and figure out what was caught on film and who shot it. But I guess military intelligence is an oxymoron so we shouldn't question this.
The script also suffers from a lame ending. The entity that is kept skillfully off screen, is not put to good effect in the end. In fact the film wraps up in a rather contrived and trite Hollywood manner. Too bad since most of what happens before moves nicely along. But "Super 8" en=genders such good will because of its youthful and passionate characters that it's not hard to give it a pass on these lapses of logic.
The effects are solid but not very imaginative or clever in terms of design. Similarly, the period setting is poorly rendered. You don't get a real feel for the fact that this is set in the 70s. The images we are given of America are more like what we'd expect from a film set in the 50s, not one coping with Vietnam and Watergate. I know it is meant to be a small town that might invoke more Norman Rockwell Americana than perhaps a big city of the 70s, but even then it still fails to convince that it is a 70s era film.
"Super 8" (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and some drug use) is a summer charmer and one of the better films about capturing the sense of passion that drives some people to make films in the first place. This film also captures the joys of childhood even when set against danger and potential tragedy.
Companion viewing: "Stand By Me," "The Host," "Son of Rambow"
Just for fun, here is Spielberg's short "Amblin'," which is where his company Amblin Entertainment takes its name. You can see his early obsession for film in this student work.