Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Super 8" (2011)

Starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler
Written and directed by JJ Abrams
Rated PG-13 - Language, sci-fi violence and mayhem
Running Time: 112 Minutes

If you put Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," "E.T." and "The Goonies" in a blender, you'd probably pour out JJ Abrams' "Super 8." 

Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) lost his mother in an industrial accident at the local steel mill.  His father, Jack (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff's deputy blames local drunk Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard).  Joe spends most of his time with his friends, helping to make a zombie movie on a small super 8 film camera to enter into a local festival.  The group includes chubby director Charles (Riley Griffith), Preston (Zach Mills), Carey (Ryan Lee) and Martin (Gabriel Brasso).  Charles has managed to convince Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to participate in the movie and to provide transportation for the group to a small train station where they intend to film a scene.

While there, a pickup truck driven by the kids' biology teacher, Mr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), drives onto the tracks and collides head-on with the train.  The train derails, cars flying left and right, explosions everywhere.  But afterward, the kids learn the awful truth: something was on that train - something the United States Air Force wants back.  As the military moves in on this small factory town, strange things begin to happen.  Local dogs begin to run away.  The sheriff disappears, along with other people.  Power outages become rampant, and machinery begins to disappear or malfunction all over town. 

Joe begins to develop a crush on Alice as the group decides to continue making their film, using the train crash and the military presence to increase their production value.  Jack, however, catches wind of Joe getting closer to Alice, and forbids it.  Meanwhile, the kids discover that they managed to capture some footage of whatever was on the train.  As the military clamps down on the town and begins to take drastic measures to contain the creature, the kids learn the truth about its nature.  And when it captures Alice, Joe vows to go into the quarantine zone to rescue her. 

"Super 8" feels like a movie that Steven Spielberg would have made about 25 years ago.  It features a lot of Spielberg's hallmarks, which to some might come across perhaps as cloying or overly schmaltzy, but that I've always enjoyed.  The relationship between Joe and Jack, the broken father-son dynamic, is classic Spielberg, and Abrams nails it.  There's so much left unsaid between these two for much of the film, and yet an obvious love between them.  Each one is still hurting over the loss of the mother, each one needing the other, but not being able to broach the subject. 

The group of kids is close-knit, but they'll rag on each other constantly.  Each one has a distinct personality.  One is the pushy director, eager to get the shots; another is a scaredy cat who vomits at the first sign of danger; another is a little pyromaniac in the making...   They're banter is fun and lively, even when they're all in mortal danger.  Joe's budding romance with Alice is also well done, the actors developing real chemistry despite their age and inexperience. 

"Super 8" actually focuses much more on the relationships of its characters than on its whiz-bang alien action.  Though there are a few cool set pieces, it's obvious that Abrams is putting his eggs in that basket.  Much like the shark in "Jaws," Abrams keeps the creature in the dark and obscured for most of the film, and in the end, the creature is merely a plot point to cement new relationships between the characters and to repair broken ones. "Super 8" is ultimately about a number of characters all broken by the death of one woman who learn to overcome their grief and guilt over the incident, all spurred by the events following the train crash. 

This is probably Abrams' most sure, most mature film.  Until now he's only helmed adaptations of other properties like "Mission: Impossible III" and "Star Trek" or TV projects like "Alias" and "Lost."  "Super 8" definitely feels very Spielberg, but it also feels very Abrams.  He manages to keep his camera much steadier than he did in "Star Trek," but there are lots of gorgeous lens flares breaking apart the images.  He hides the creature well, with lots of quick edits and placing it behind lots of obstructing objects until the time is right.  And Abrams also manages to construct some really thrilling sequences, like the train crash and the attack on the bus, as well as the weapons malfunctions that tear apart the town at the film's climax. 

"Super 8" is a big risk for a summer film.  It's not based on an existing property, and features no big-name talent, and its advertising campaign is just as shy about giving away the film's secrets as was the notorious "Cloverfield," also produced by Abrams.  Whether or not the risk pays off for the studio, I'm not sure (though it's opening box office is somewhere near $40 million for the weekend) but I can say that, creatively, "Super 8" the risk pays off.