Super 8, 2011.
Written and Directed by J.J. Abrams.
Starring Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Noah Emmerich and Glynn Turman.
A group of kids making a film on their ‘Super 8’ camera witness a freight train crash that releases ‘something’, causing the military to shut down their town and setting a series of mysterious disappearances and weird occurrences in motion.
There are always going to be comparisons between the films that influenced Super 8 and the film itself. And its success is really going to be measured on that. Just prior to the release director J.J. Abrams, distributor Paramount, cinema Alamo Drafthouse and AintitCoolNews.com hosted an event screening the following films that were said to have heavily informed and influenced Super 8. They included: Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind, The Thing, and Scanners. Now if you’re going to aim for a the kind of film that you want to make when you’re heading down the sci-fi road – aiming to harness the youthful exuberance and bravery of three Hollywood masters Spielberg, Carpenter and Cronenberg, working at the peak of their powers, is commendably ambitious. To come remotely close to affecting your viewers with an experience like watching The Thing or Close Encounters is quite simply – super.
The production design and cinematography aesthetically align themselves with iconic Hollywood films like The Goonies, E.T. and Poltergeist and from the moment the film begins I found myself slipping into an uncontrollable nostalgia. The summer, the bikes, the great detached naïve perspective of youth. Abrams creates an authentic portrait of small-town-working class America of a somewhat broken American family in the late 70s. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) are in a traumatic state in the wake of an accident at the town steel mill that killed Mrs Lamb, mother and wife of the family. This trauma heightens the contrast between Jackson, one of the town deputy’s and Joe the young artist whose relationship is left in the void made by the death in the family. Joel Courtney’s performance as Joe is soulful and heartbreaking but terrifically sweet. His look infuses the baby face of Sean Astin in The Goonies and the great wisdom conveyed in the eyes of Henry Thomas as Elliot in E.T. Since the passing of his mother Joe carries her locket around and he turns to holding it as the only form of comfort in the varying extreme situations that he and the group face. Joel’s acting in the scene after the wreck was so affective that it nearly had me weeping. Kyle Chandler who plays Joe’s dad Jackson is probably best known for his role as Coach Eric Taylor in the great Friday Night Lights television series. Jackson’s tough exterior is immediately examined and given a fragile dimension by Abrams that distances him from the stoicism of his most famous role. I loved the father son dynamic here that’s without (the necessary) maternal figure – and that the two starkly different characters are having to deal with the warmth being out of their lives.
Abrams made all the right choices with casting – filling out the cast with a group of character actors most people will go “oh yeah he was in that movie with um… yeah I’ve seen him before in that TV show”. And the adult characters, while being believable and authentic really take a back seat to a great little bunch of child actors. Normally the golden rule for a director is to NEVER work with animals or children. Abrams must be commended for extracting such deep and multi dimensional performances from the core group of kids. They are the focus of the films and they carry it. Cary (Ryan Lee) the firebug, Preston (Zach Mills), lead actor Martin (Gabriel Basso) and tyrannical amateur director Charles (Riley Griffiths) form an eclectic little group that represent the burgeoning generation of filmmakers influenced by the explosion of B-Grade monster centric films of the period that the film is set. They are all authentic and quirky and in contrast to their adventurous Goonies brethren; yearn to create an adventurous scenario on their friend’s ‘Super 8’ instead of participating in a grand adventure. Some of the best moments in the film for me were watching the kids filming. Watching Charles hilariously utilise his counterparts to realise his vision and use their ingenuity for ‘production value’ was a source of many laughs; I especially enjoyed the last minute rewrites for Martin. And when Charles needed a wife for Martin’s character so we can ‘care’ more about him we’re introduced to the wonderful Alice (Elle Fanning); whose moments acting in the film within Super 8 are the most stunning for Joe, the boys and the audience in alarmingly legitimizing something that is the source for most of the comedy in the film.
Now this great chemistry and authenticity of the characters provide a great foil for the films other dimension – a suspenseful alien/monster thriller. I really don’t want to say too much, as to not spoil the plot but the kids witness the crash of the freight train, what caused it, and that something escaped the wreckage – and have course to investigate. Now saying that, despite the great deal of secrecy that the filmmakers and distributor have been making to conceal the catalyst for the film’s mysterious event and strange goings on, I found that there wasn’t the traditional emphasis on incremental glimpses of the films alien/monster. I wouldn’t say that it is quite as overt as the stunning South Korean Host in terms of showing the monster right up front but I felt that we (the audience) had enough glimpses of the alien visitor that it quenched anyone usually gearing himself or herself for the big reveal.
Super 8 engages your sense memory. There are certain songs, smells of nature in the breeze, the taste of home cooking and films from your childhood that when you’re re-exposed to them – instantly transport you to that moment. I think that the biggest compliment I can give this film is that it elicits the same feelings I get when I watch E.T. Ricky Gervais was onto something when once described Abrams as the next Spielberg – and I think that a late seventies summer where kids are making zombie movies with their friends is indicative of a hat tipping to say thank you for your influence. This is a great Hollywood MOVIE. Go and see it to feel like a kid again, if you love sci-fi and want to see Spielberg’s successor working under the supervision of his mentor and affirming Mr Gervais’ claim.
Blake Howard is a writer/site director/podcaster at the castleco-op.com.
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