July 14, 2011

Something We've Been Missing

I sometimes rue the time I was born and grew up in. Sure, the 70s and 80s sucked for various reasons, but they were awesome for various reasons as well. I'm not saying that the 90s and 00s were shit. Far from it, it's just that I'm disappointed that I missed out on some things. One of those things is getting to see the movies that came out in those years. No, not the macho action movies or the stupid romantic comedies. No, I'm talking about the awe inspiring, feats of magnificence created by the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and others. Films like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and others of the sort. However, just because I don't have the experience of seeing those films in theaters, I still have the nostalgia. And because of that, Super 8 works wonders for me. What director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg have crafted is a film designed to make adults remember what the movies of their childhood were like and impart the same sense of awe on today's children. It accomplishes something few films these days do. It provides that pure, unadulterated escapism that the films it's paying homage to had, and leaves you with that childlike feeling of wonder that is rarely felt. It's magic!

You were these kids once...
Following the death of his mother, Joe Lamb busies himself with helping his friends make a zombie movie as a means of coping. Despite the fact that it causes problems for him and his father, he pursues the project with pure tunnel vision. One night, while filming at the train tracks, Joe and his friends witness a horrific train crash, which, unbeknownst to them, releases something vicious into the countryside surrounding their town. As the strange and frightening events begin to pile up, Joe and co are whisked on a wild and life threatening adventure to discover the nature of whatever it is that's happening.

There's a lot going on in Super 8, to be sure. It's a monster on the loose movie. It's a coming of age tale. It's a movie about coping with loss and learning to forgive. I initially thought of it as ET, if ET wanted to kill us, but it's a lot more than that. It's actually mostly a love story, between Joe and his friend Alice, set against a backdrop of Roswell tinged, Cold War era town life... that just happens to have a hostile alien tearing the place to pieces. But all these elements come together beautifully, forming a film that is at once very familiar and nostalgic, while at the same time unique and new.

This is a J.J. Abrams movie, and Mr. Abrams does two things well, crafting intense, exciting action sequences (more on that later) and bringing out real, emotional, character development from his actors no matter how ridiculous the circumstances. That holds true here; every actor present does a bang up job, from the newcomers who play the kids to the veteran character actors who play the adults.

The two standouts, in my mind, are Elle Fanning as Alice and Kyle Chandler as Joe's father Jackson. Elle, the stronger of the two Fannings, is a commanding presence on screen, and Chandler brings his usual commitment to a long overdue lead role. Everyone else shines, but they shine the brightest.

These kids too...

Though I initially cast aside J.J. Abrams for his seemingly overly sentimental touches to big action (Alias, Mission Impossible 3), Star Trek showed me what he could do with a mega budget flick, and how personal and character driven he could make it. Star Trek was never more accessible before he touched it, and now, he has successfully unboxed a long dead approach to filmmaking. Super 8 is a style of film that no one makes these days, a style that relies on the audience to project themselves on to the characters to share in their awe, rather than deafen them with explosions or bore them with exposition. It revels in the wonder it creates and the amazement it's characters feel.

Sure, filmmakers these days attempt to create jaw dropping spectacle, but all of them fail where Spielberg, and now Abrams, succeeded. Yes, Avatar was breathtaking and all that, but it was far too out of this world (literally) for the viewer to craft any tangible connection to it. That's what made Spielberg's movies so good. It took these fantastical ideas, these daring concepts, and put them in our towns, our homes, and layered it with real world views, mindsets, and culture. We didn't need to try and create that tangible connection because it was already there for us. And if Abrams does anything right, it's that. We are the kid who wants to make the movie. We are the kid who wants to get the girl. So many big budget movies these days rely on violence and pyrotechnics to get the job done, so much so that a movie like this almost feels restrained and subtle by comparison, and by that virtue that much more exciting. Super 8 is a rare breed.

It doesn't hurt that Abrams knows how to thrill as well. The elements of Spielberg classics like ET and Close Encounters are there, but Abrams also mixes in the best elements of Spielberg's thrillers and action movies. Initially, the monster is a phantom, seen just off screen or in quick flashes as it wreaks havoc, like in Jaws. Since kids are the main characters here, the film, like Jurassic Park, takes on the "children in peril" mentality, another Spielberg touch that seriously needs to come back. The finale is a hectic and tense gauntlet, populated by multiple elements and layers to consider, like an Indiana Jones action sequence.

And that train crash? God damn, that was good!

It's not perfect. The special effects used to create the creature could use some work; Abrams trademark lens flare thing hurts him where it helped him in Star Trek; and the film does, at a point, get a little bogged down with the military drama. But all those gripes are for naught, because when all's said and done and you're walking out of the theatre, you feel as if you were taken on a journey rather than simply told a story. Super 8 does what no film in the last decade has done, strip away the bullshit, sit the audience down and simply ask "What if?" It's a kind of film that hasn't been made in years, but it's a kind of film that absolutely needs to be made!



  1. Listen to the end of the latest Matineecast and you'll likely get a grin.

    One thing though...

    Your introduction (which I love btw) got me thinking about a whole other film entirely: namely MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.

    You talk about wishing you were my age so that you could have grown up with memories of Indiana Jones, E.T., Luke Skywalker et al defining your childhood.

    I, on the other hand, wish I was twenty years older or so that I could have been at the right age to experience counter-culture like TAXI DRIVER, APOCALYPSE NOW, and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST firsthand.

    Thus, the MIDNIGHT IN PARIS connection. No matter what you wish you'd experienced - many who *did* experience those things wish they'd experienced something that came before. Gotta make sure you don't get too caught up in that!

    Great post Gutes.

  2. Raving much? I didn't like this as much as you did and thought there was something slightly amiss. That Abrams wasn't sure whether he wanted a monster movie like Cloverfield or a coming-of-age story like ET. I thought some of the action set pieces were really over the top, overly loud and "shiny". Nonetheless, I understand why you would love it. Nice review Seb!

  3. There's certainly a lot of raving here :D

    As for the history/growing up in a different time ... we never do fully appreciate the present and we always glorify the past - mainly because it's subjective thoughts.

    Great review Sebastian.

  4. @Hatter: Oh sure, I'd have loved to grow up in that time too. But movies these days crib so many elements from the ETs and Luke Skywalkers, and here I am only seeing the consequences, rather than the full evolution. Makes me excited to see where films are in another 20 years, and which ones from today will be as revered. My money's on Harry Potter!

    @Castor: Yeah, a lot of people are singing your tune. I don't know. It just spoke to me.

    @Duke: Nothing wrong with raving. And hey, I absolutely do appreciate the present. I just glorify the past because we the past to thank for the present.