Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

An uncondescending, but remarkably unoriginal throwback to the Amblin Entertainment family films of the '80s, this children-centric sci-fi piece has a group of pre-teens accidentally capturing a mysterious train crash while filming a Super 8 zombie film. The whole film has that small-town vibe where everyone knows not only everyone's name, but their familial situation and behavioral tendencies. The main characters are well-rounded in that Stand By Me way where they swear and talk tough, while revealing their childhood naivete when on the subject of girls. There are two parallel central plots, one involving the Super 8 film's makeup man and his romance with the leading lady (played by Elle Fanning), and the other revolving around his father, the deputy, and his begrudging leadership of the town once the mayor mysteriously goes missing. Without giving too much away (although the secrets of this film don't really live up to their buildup), the film starts maintaining a sort of Jaws-meets-E.T.-meets-Close Encounters of the Third Kind vibe, cribbing imagery and moments wholesale from those movies, and keeping the kids at the forefront of the action in a very Stephen King's It sort of way.

J.J. Abrams greatest flaw is also his greatest attribute; he is a terrific showman. He is aware enough of pop culture to understand how to make something seem mysterious, interesting, and potentially, deep and engaging. In this age of "bigger is better," Alias, Lost, Cloverfield, and now Super 8 have all had the benefit of Abrams genius ability to leave just enough to the imagination to make something seem infinitely more interesting than it could have declared itself to be. However, all of those projects (save for Super 8) have another thing in common; they are all known as remarkable letdowns. From the last episode of Lost to the dismal box office numbers of Cloverfield, there is already plenty of evidence out there to show that J.J. Abrams is much better at setting things up than he is at actually following through on his grandiose promises. Super 8 is no exception. Remember that first trailer, showing nothing but the train crash, the camera, and the implication that something monstrous and alien escaped the train? Well, there's very little in the movie that expands on what is implied in the trailer, and the tricks they play with your preconceived notions of the films plot are embarrassing, hokey failures.

That being said, there is much of the film to commend. J.J. Abrams has a tendency to linger on quiet, schmaltzy moments, but usually casts well enough to pull those moments off; this film is no exception, and the greatest element of the film is its child cast. From the mousy, fireworks-obsessed scamp, to the overweight, tyrrannical director, to the flaky, consistently-vomiting leading man, the youthful characters are endearing, human, and consistently watchable. The central romance between the young, shy makeup man and the brave, caring leading lady is, surprisingly, cute and inoffensive (until the silly plot contrivances catch up with it). Unfortunately, the adult cast does not survive Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg's nostalgia-tinged vision; they all come off as hokey, Peanuts-style "wonk-wonk-wonk" caricatures who are inexcusably moody and prickish one second then inexplicably heroic and stalwart the next. Noah Emmerich, an actor who, since the Truman Show, has repeatedly impressed me with his sincere, naturalistic performances, is saddled with the worst role in the show, a merciless mad scientist/power-hungry Army type who is a mustache-twirl away from Snidey Whiplash. Ron Eldard also suffers a similar fate as Fanning's town-drunk father. The adult-centric stuff takes up a good %40-45 of the running time, so the gaping faults of that section cannot be overlooked; a shame, because, until the effects-driven, cliched cheesefest of a last act, the character work and nostalgic style actually render the film a rather endearing, family-friendly piece of cinema.

Slightly Recommended to families with tough kids (there are blood splatters in this film) and fans of Cloverfield which, in the end, the film shares remarkable similarities with (down to some of the SAME EXACT FX...God, what a disappointment). I definitely prefer this to E.T., but not necessarily Close Encounters. Honestly, I'd just rewatch Jaws.

P.S. There are definitely some killer jump scares in the film, but none better than the initial train-crash itself; even though the kids would definitely be killed by all the flaming debris that juuuuuuust misses them, the juxtaposition of the devastating carnage and the frightened kids in peril is terribly effective. Unfortunately, the rest doesn't really ever live up to that moment.

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