|Taking lessons from JJ Abrams|
I'd call it the best Spielberg movie never made, but his role as a producer limits the truth of that statement. His signature is all over the film, especially in terms of the craft. But, I think that has more to do with J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Trek, etc.) than anything else. Super 8 is most definitely a love letter to Steven Spielberg, and if the multiple shots of people looking just slightly off camera, the musical cues, and the treatment of the action is any indication, Abrams is most definitely in love. I've heard the film referred to as Stand By Me meets ET meets The Goonies, but... adding The Goonies to that list sort of insults the film. I say this, because I've always hated The Goonies, and I always will. But, that's for another post.
ET I can understand, at least in terms of tone. Stand By Me, definitely. A lot of critics call this film an homage to early Spielberg, but I think it's more Spielberg in general - even with Minority Report, or Catch Me If You Can, or Jurassic Park, it's the tonal quality of Spielberg's movies that Abrams is paying attention to. Not just the style. It's the grandeur that he aims to capture, and he does it in spades. The story is set up without hesitation; the film opens to somber music, while we watch a factory worker change the number on a "days since last accident" sign from a much higher number down to an ominous "1". Someone got hurt bad. Joey (Joel Courtney) and his father Jack (Kyle Chandler) are hosting the wake of his mother, who must have been a wonderful woman. Everyone in town is there, including Joey's friends.
Joey is helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a zombie movie for a local film festival. They're using a Super 8 camera. I'd say "an old Super 8", but this is the 70's. They were new then. The kids in this movie seem lifted right out of Stand By Me - so that comparison is, again, dead on. Charles is the, er, rotund Jerry O'Connell character, Joey is the River Phoenix hero, and the other friends all fall into their respective id, ego, super ego roles. The only addition to the group is the girl, Alice (Elle Fanning). She's the only actress in the film, and goes to great lengths to do the best she can, which is incredible. Alice is as good an actress as Fanning is, and Fanning is remarkable. Especially here. Not just the best of the kids, but probably the best of the cast. I'd be remiss to not mention Kyle Chandler in that debate, though - his grieving father, going to all sorts of extremes to protect his boy, is remarkable character acting.
During a midnight shoot, which Alice stole her father's car to drive the group to, at a train station, the unthinkable happens. It's the perfect moment of production value, Charles thinks. During a scripted "please don't go/I love you" scene for his movie, a train starts passing in the background. He has to capture it. And it's the best thing to happen to his film, until a pick-up truck swerves onto the tracks and derails the train, causing a giant explosion in which trains cars go flying everywhere. Remember the bus crash in The Fugitive or the car crash in Let Me In? No where near that subtle. But, just as effective, nonetheless. An alien force from hell is unleashed upon the town after small white cubes scatter across the scene of the crash. The children discover that one of their teachers was driving the truck. They also discover that the accident was intentional, and all caught on tape. When dogs start going missing and the power starts going out, even before the Air Force arrives to conceal the matter and evacuate the town, the kids know it's time to put up or shut up. Most of them just shut up.
Joey has a tricky relationship with Alice. Much like Alice has a tricky relationship with her father. And much like most kids in movies like these have tricky relationships with everyone. Movies like this only succeed if you get a sense that these kids are the only kids worth knowing about. They're the coolest people in the town, doing the coolest things. The parents are there, but not really. Not to say they're bad parents, just not the focus. If Stand By Me had "parent teacher association" meetings, it would not have been the same film. The parents in this film do have their own stories, though - Alice's father is a drunk dealing with guilt, Joey's father is grieving and trying to keep a town calm, and Charles' parents want nothing but the best for Joey and for their own kids to sit down and calmly enjoy dinner. Life was simpler, it seems, in the 70's. Until an alien tries to destroy your town.
My only problem with the film but it's not enough to drop it a grade or anything drastic like that, is the way the climax seems to unhinge itself from the rest of the story. Almost like... "okay, here's the Spielberg/Abrams bromance, and now here's the post-Avatar world action sequences." Though, in a way, awkwardly fitting climaxes have been a staple of Spielberg's career all the way through. Especially in his sci-fi work. Consider the anti-resolution to Jurassic Park. The bad guy saves the day, right? Well, that isn't the case here, and obviously I won't spoil it for you, but it certainly carries a similar tone. Joe and friends go hunting for the missing dogs and missing townsfolk, and end up in a massive confrontation during which their bond is tested. It's the same in most movies like this, but thankfully, Abrams has enough creativity to do the scene without ruining the rest of his film. If only could have steered himself away from that one plot device...
I think if Super 8 had been a more subdued experience, it would have made for a better, longer lasting memory. Yes, the effects are spectacular and the story is wonderfully told. Yes, the homages to Steven Spielberg in his heyday are exquisitely done, and the references to other films that might have inspired this one are slick and almost unnoticeable. And there's enough JJ Abrams in the mix to make the film be a sort of bridge between the old days of story telling and the new days of the summer blockbuster. But, there's a point where it gets a bit loopy and cocksure. Thankfully, that point doesn't last too long, and we're right back to the story we've come to love over the last two hours. A boy and his friends, parents and their kids, the problems the town faces, and great, scientific adversity. Spielberg built his career on it. JJ Abrams probably just cemented his with it.