Super 8, 2011.
Written and Directed by J.J. Abrams.
Starring Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Noah Emmerich and Glynn Turman.
The Airforce takes over a small, American town when a mysterious cargo escapes there. And all while a group of local children are trying to make a zombie film.
J.J. Abrams sure does love lens-flare. His Star Trek was blinded by it, with intensely bright lights stretching horizontally across the characters and screen.
You know who else is a lighting guy? Spielberg. So famous are his films for their illumination, people describe it as his name + ian (as in ‘Spielbergian’). That’s quite an accolade. You usually have to be dead before people start doing that.
They are director and producer, respectively, for Super 8, and the lighting appears to have received as much attention as the characters and plot. A few promotional posters actually have the key light as second billing, just underneath Abrams’ name. Which isn’t to say that the characters and plot aren’t developed properly, because they are. It’s just those guys sure love their lens-flare.
The reductive thing to say would be: “Stand By E.T.” That would encourage false expectations. Super 8 is not the coming-of-age story that Stand By Me was, but it does have a group of kids (with a Corey Feldman look-a-like), a nostalgia element (this time for the late-70s) and a train. The kids share a similar banter to those in Stand By Me, and occasionally say something like ‘shithead’ or ‘asshole’, but they’re never as badass.
They’re making a zombie film called ‘The Case’ to enter into a competition. The director of this meta-film, Charles (Riley Griffiths), really should have thought to switch genres. Because one night, when shooting at a deserted station (for “production value”), a military freight train derails spectacularly alongside them. The crash itself stretches to absurdity, going on for a rather ridiculous length of time, but there’s something about having a child cast. Their innocence dilutes the special effects, making the CGI explosions and flipping train carriages a bit more tangible. And then there’s the E.T. side of things. The cargo wasn’t entirely terrestrial.
But the E.T. comparisons go far beyond “there’s an alien in it”. Super 8 is tonally Spielbergian (see, people do say that) – the white, middle-America, suburban setting; the family relationships; the spectacle; the sentimentality. It’s been called a forced ideology, and some theorists get really quite irate over the white picket-fence portrayal of life. Maybe they have a point, but Super 8, as do the majority of Spielberg’s films, captures a rare cinematic magic, a genuine bewilderment of extraordinary things occurring right here, in towns similar to ours. This enchantment disables most of your critical sensibilities. And then you’re there with those kids, on an adventure to discover why all the dogs, people and microwaves are steadily disappearing from town, as those childhood summer holidays seem to stretch into infinity.
However, the plot is not solely driven by these quests. The zombie film, recent death of Joe’s (Joel Courtney) mother and childhood romance between him and Alice (Elle Fanning) are all given equal standing. And the different threads entwine seamlessly. Each sub-plot is comfortably developed, not rushed, and woven with the main alien-on-the-loose narrative. And the lighting. Don’t forget the lighting.
Abrams’ passion for film as a medium, sci-fi as a genre and Spielberg as a director all beam warmly from Super 8. There are Star Wars posters in Joe’s room, and the company responsible for the zombie epidemic in The Case is called ‘Romero Chemicals’. But then why only two stars?
The homage to Spielberg is sincere, but Super 8 is only a very good impersonation. Occasionally, it tries too hard. You might think there are a few really emotional scenes, but actually they only increased the volume on musical score. Still treasure it, though, because the eyes occasionally water, the belly often laughs and the spirits definitely rise. Oh, and lens flare. You’ll sure love it even if you only have a passing interest in lens-flare.
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