Review: Super 8 (2011)
In simpler(?) times
A lot will be made of J.J. Abrams' new film Super 8 being a throwback to the Close Encounters and the Jaws' and especially the E.T.'s of producer Steven Spielberg's earlier filmmaking days. Though anyone who loves film can hardly find that something to complain about. This isn't just a film that copies those others (well, not completely) or a film that strives for their feel and fails, this is a film that wholeheartedly channels those films. A film that, being of the same pie, is its own slice.
Super 8 takes place in the 70's and is about a group of friends who, with the help of their trusty Super 8 camera, are making a very low (no) budget zombie picture in the hopes that it will get chosen as a feature in an upcoming film festival. While out filming one night they witness an almost unbelievably massive train wreck and over the next few days, with people, pets and electronics going missing and the military in town, slowly realize that whatever was in that train has escaped and is creating a havoc on their town which quickly gets chaotic.
I read an interview recently with Abrams where he said the idea for this movie came from two separate ideas for two separate movies; one being the largely autobiographical story of the kids making their monster movie and the other being the monster movie. He said the kids movie had great characters but no story and the monster movie had a great story but no characters so...smush 'em together.
I loved the story about the kids. While I've been movie obsessed from a very young age, I never had the ambition, resources or like minded friends required for such a project. I would've rather been watching movies than making them. But seeing the kids in this, running around making their movie with little more than imagination and of course, the Super 8 camera, I wished I would've. Even as the strange goings on begin happening and the military presence is suddenly everywhere, the kids use these things to their advantage, filming a scene with the tumbled train in the background and another with military personnel walking around. 'Production value' their fearless director calls it. Priceless.
Interspersed in the kids' story is the monster story. It's not specifically explained where the thing came from or where it was headed (unless I somehow missed that), but we gather it's an alien the government has been holding in confinement at Area 51 since the UFO crash landed in Roswell in the 50's. The alien is homesick and pissed right off for being held prisoner for so long and when the derailing of the train opens the compartment it was in, it takes its chance for a little mayhem and revenge while it gathers supplies to try to get home. Rather than pushing the alien right into the audience's face all the time, Abrams takes the much more effective Cloverfield approach of giving the audience just the slightest glimpses here and there of an arm or leg as the thing whooshes by through some trees or in between buildings. It worked great in Cloverfield and works great here.
In fact, if you wanted to throw a referential tag line on the film that has nothing to do with Spielberg for once, you could say it's Stand By Me meets Cloverfield and be pretty damn close.
Super 8 is a throwback alright. It looks like a 70's film, feels like a 70's film, its main protagonists are kids, which rarely happens these days unless they're singing or dancing or animated. They get in a hell of an adventure, one that would make the Goonies proud, and the actors playing the kids give better performances than the adults (two of the kids had never done a stitch of acting before this film). In fact, the only thing that doesn't feel like it came from the decade of decadence is the CGI-ified special effects. But they're very well done and believable and enhance the picture, rather than hurt it.
My only qualm would have to be that once or twice and especially in the last scene, Abrams stick a little too close to the Spielberg script and comes dangerously close to plagiarism. But those are nitpicky things most people probably won't notice or mind.
Oh, and do we finally get to see the zombie movie within a movie the kids work so hard on during the course of the film? Yes we do. And it's awesome.