Monday, June 13, 2011

Review - Super 8

Art imitates art in Super 8, J.J. Abrams love letter to Steven Spielberg, but just like a carbon copy of a piece of paper, the imitation is of noticeably lower quality.
Joe Lamb, played with sincere effort by newcomer Joel Courtney, is mourning the tragic loss of his mother at picture's beginning, immediately establishing him as the sort of emotionally malnourished central character we often saw portrayed in Spielberg's vintage works. He spends his summer days helping a group a friends make an amateur zombie movie. The band of bike-riding filmmakers include a bossy director, an easily nauseated leading man, a pyromaniacal effects artist, and a new leading lady (the wonderful Elle Fanning) whose puppy love affair with sympathetic Joe ratchets the cute factor up to eleven. While filming a key scene by the railroad station, they witness the train wreck (so spectacular it screams “Hollywood fakery”) that unleashes a mysteriously threatening creature upon their unsuspecting middle American burg. It isn't long before Joe's father, the local deputy (Kyle Chandler), begins to catch wind of strange goings-on from paranoid townsfolk.

That Super 8 is an unabashed throwback to every movie Spielberg produced or directed between 1975 and 1985 (ie: the likes of Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., Poltergeist, The Goonies, etc) is an obvious understatement. All the familiar traits and archetypes are there; the aforementioned emotionally needy protagonists, the adult authority figures who just don't get it, the coming-of-age theme, the suburban setting, and even the style of music – Michael Giacchino is aping John Williams throughout, going so far as to simply invert or reorder some of Williams' more memorable melodies. But it seems Abrams was so focused on recapturing the aesthetic and concept of his adored influences, that he forgot to give Super 8 the one thing that made said influences so adored: a half-decent story. Near the beginning of the film, our young George-Romero-in-the-making agonizes over his zombie flick's need of “a better storyline”. This proves to be an unintended irony, as Abrams' own screenplay for Super 8 is hallow and underdeveloped. The two primary narratives – the let's-find-out-about-the-elusive-beast plot and the let's-reconcile-our-damaged-relationships plot – play out pretty much independently of each other, thus shortchanging them both to the point where we can hardly bring ourselves to care about either.
To Abrams' credit, he's a good enough architect of tension and excitement to keep us captivated merely with individual scenes, especially thanks to Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, whose film editing does the movie more good than it deserves. But empty exercises in scene construction can only sate the discerning viewer for so long before annoyance kicks in. Such is particularly the case in the confusing climax, which brings his fond Spielbergian tribute down to the level of Michael Bay explosion porn, and the absurd ending, which aims for, of all things, sentimentality. But it's too late for this cathartic resolution to even register, because not enough care has been taken to properly flesh out the characters and their relationships.

This isn't to say there's not some element of fun to sitting though Super 8 and playing “spot the allusion”, but despite resembling something my instincts tell me I should love, it cannot recreate the same feeling. If you're really in the mood for a nostalgia trip, you're probably better off to revisit the classics than indulge this well-intentioned but poorly written poser.

** out of ****

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