Saturday, June 11, 2011

Film Review: "Super 8" (**1/2)

Looking back on the triad of decades from the 1970s to the 1990s, many people do call to mind Steven Spielberg amongst the more defining directors. He's made a great many high impact films such as E.T., Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but he's had a bit of a dry spell recently. Films like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and War of the Worlds have given him something of a negative  reputation lately. So much can go right with a film like Super 8, and it does its best to be its own thing. While it doesn't hurt to have such a great director as inspiration, the films is a homage to the wrong sort of Spielberg.

The film opens on a sign listing days gone by since the last accident at a mill, and before the fact, I knew they were going to set it back to one. So no, the film gets no points for subtlety on this one. It then cuts to the wake for young Joe Lamb's mother, and we get the idea through dialogue that she did not go out well. It's at this point, with Joe sitting alone on the swing outside, I got the idea that Abrams was crafting a sibling to Matt Reeves' film adaptation Let Me In. In fact, I was beginning to expect the film to be something more than I expected.

Then the stray plot strand invades the film, and it is of course the main thing that has drawn audiences in to see this film. The main group of kids, working to make their own zombie film, shoot at a train station one evening just in time for a truck to derail an oncoming train. This particular sequence is where the film reaches its experiential high, because even if they don't build up the event quite as much as they should, the train wreck is a beauty to behold. It's an immediate onslaught of fire and terror, and while we know that the train has to stop blowing up at some point, we really wish it wouldn't.

And then there's the alien subplot, even though it takes up far too much time to really be considered a subplot. However, it never quite melds with the main emotional arc of the film. The Air Force suddenly starts clapping down on the little town of Lillian, looking for the alien that ripped its way out of the train. Noah Emmerich plays Colonel Nelec, who is for all intents and purposes the villain of our piece. He is driven to reclaim the monster back by any means necessary, even though we never quite get a reason why he's doing it. He's an unfinished character, much like Cate Blanchett in Hanna. You see the menace, but where is it coming from?

Then there's all the havoc that this creature causes, which is signified in two largely identical scenes. The first, and more effective, is the town sheriff being taken by the alien at a local gas station, along with an unsuspecting and unfortunate employee. The second is a guy tending to the power lines being snatched off his vehicle. Both seem to intrude in the same obvious fashion. You know something's going to happen as soon as the scene comes on. You never quite get a sense of danger, and that's just too bad. As for the monster, it looks exactly like what you'd expect an Abrams alien to look like. Multiple limbs and an at first monstrous face, but you read emotion into it towards then end, and even if you're made of stone, you'll probably have a slight "aw" slip out at that moment.

While the sentimentality does work against the film greatly at points, such as the irritating young love between Joe and Alice or that final heart to heart with the alien, I sided mostly with the more emotional aspects of the adventure. The heart of the film should have been the dynamic between the father and the son, and I wish we'd seen more of that. I wish we'd seen the mother before she died, so that we might have felt something through the tragedy. Abrams sidelines it much more than he rightfully should. You get the feeling that he could have formed out the script and the story a lot more than he did, and if he spent another six months on the film, he could have given us something beautiful and extraordinary.

I'm a huge fan of Michael Giacchino, but he does his worst work of his career by far in this film. There are flashes of genius here and there, but it spends too much time emulating John Williams, often to its detriment. As such it overpowers the story at hand in many scenes, and subtlety is completely forgotten by all at hand. The cinematography on the other hand, while occasionally too obvious, is absolutely beautiful for the majority of the time. There's such care and attention to the visual aesthetic of the film, and it'd shame my art major brother if I said otherwise.

The best thing about this film is the kids, who are completely perfect depictions of how kids are. Joel Courtney is solid and emotional as Joe, and most will find themselves falling into that category as a follower. Ryan Lee as Carey, the pyrotechnic of the group, is a flavorful favorite for his goofy funniness. The best of the group, and the one I find myself empathizing with in terms of my own childhood, is Riley Griffiths as Charles. He is such a loser who takes charge of the group, despite issues of morality, and I say that from a place of affection. I don't feel Elle Fanning is even worth noting, because her character feels woefully underdeveloped. The script is rather too corny at times, and Super 8 is a sad shadow of what it could have been, but it's slightly inspiring and somewhat enjoyable nonetheless.

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