Sunday, June 12, 2011

Close Encounters: SUPER 8

Super 8 is a refreshing kind of summer blockbuster. Unlike so many films of its kind in recent years, even some of the ones I’ve more or less enjoyed, this film is not content with merely hooking up the audience to a machine that sends out periodic jolts of approximated entertainment. It plays out smoothly and enjoyably telling a real, heartfelt, self-contained story without overstaying it’s welcome, setting up potential sequels, or orienting itself within a larger fictional context. This is a story of recognizable human characters that feel relatable, realistic emotions amidst mysterious sci-fi goings-on that unspool at a varied pace with peaks and valleys instead of hammering out with a degree of groaning regularity. I wouldn’t call it perfect, but it is perfectly entertaining. This is crowd-pleasing, moist-eyed, pulse-elevating pop filmmaking par excellence.

Writer-director J.J. Abrams, who honed his genre bona fides in television before creatively reinvigorating big franchises with Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek, has set Super 8 in the late 1970’s, the time of his early adolescence. Hardly autobiographical in the broad-strokes of the plotline, it nonetheless feels intensely personal in the details. At the core of the film is a group of young teens who are shooting a zombie movie that they have self-consciously styled after the films of George A. Romero and John Carpenter and are filming using a parent’s super-8 camera. Abrams, who has often told similar stories of his own boyhood filmmaking, clearly knows the territory, the rush of giddy creativity and naïveté that comes from such endeavors. There’s a sense of creative discovery in these characters even as they set out to reproduce the beloved films of their cinematic influences.

Funnily enough, that’s precisely what Abrams is up to here as well. This isn’t merely the late 70’s. This is the late 70’s as reflected through the films Abrams loved at the time. There’s a heavy influence of early Steven Spielberg (the man serves as an executive producer too, putting a stamp of approval on Abrams’s nods) and his films – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. – to this picture in the family dynamics, the high-powered flashlights, the casual normality of the settings, the evocatively-lit small-town-Ohio safety that’s splashed with dangerous flashes of suspense. It has a warm, soft color palate spiked with cold blues and grays. Here and there are also echoes of Spielberg’s contemporaries and collaborators, a bit of Joe Dante’s Gremlins, a bit of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, as well as more than a smidgen of Romero and Carpenter, not to mention Ridley Scott’s Alien. If Abrams can’t quite pull off the material as well as his inspirations could have back in the day, I suppose that’s just part of the charm, much like the youngsters’ film is no Dawn of the Dead.

The opening scenes of Super 8 would give an unsuspecting viewer little to no indication as to the sci-fi creature-feature plot that is about to unfold. The first shot is a factory floor upon which a man is removing the numbers from a safety record sign, slowly resetting the number of days since the last accident. This is a quiet, mournful way to open a film this big, especially as the film transitions to the home of the town’s police deputy (Kyle Chandler) and his son (Joel Courtney) as they endure a funeral dinner. A wife, a mother, is lost in the accident at the factory. Normalcy has been broken. The son sits on a snowy swing, clutching his late mother’s locket. The father sits inside, tormented, wracked with sadness that turns to anger when the town drunk (Ron Eldard), a co-worker of his late wife’s, shows up unexpectedly.

With just two scenes, Abrams had me hooked. I cared about this father and son and wanted to see them become closer, to support each other in this time. They’re clinging not just to the memory of their lost loved one, but also to the memory of what she represents: the way things used to be.

The film moves forward to the summertime. The boy wants to go with his friends (including Ryan Lee and Zach Mills) to help the boisterous little director of the bunch (Riley Griffiths) finish his zombie movie. It’s a passion project and a distraction. He’s slowly but surely integrating back into a sense of normality. His father isn’t so sure about this project that, to him, seems a lot more useless than something like baseball camp. Of course, father and son have no way of knowing what’s about to crash down on their little town, how their own displaced sense of the routine is about to be writ large for everyone they know.

One night, the group of kids sneaks out to the edge of town to film a dramatic scene. They’ve convinced an alluring classmate (Elle Fanning) to play the token female role in their film. “It’s what makes a story!” the director claims. She doesn’t become just a plot point in Super 8, though. She’s a full-fledged character with great emotional pull. Once the kids start rehearsing, it’s clear that the girl’s much better equipped to act than their wooden buddy cast opposite her (Gabriel Basso). They, and we, are wowed. But these kids don’t get much of a chance to capture that sense of “wow” before a train derails not far from where they stand. It’s a sequence of sound, fury, and pyrotechnics that collide and cascade across the wide screen in a frightening display of effects work. “It’s like something out of a disaster movie,” one of the kids mutters in disbelief well after they’ve made it to safety.

Of course, the train was a top-secret air force train carrying suspiciously secretive cargo. Of course, the government personnel that swoop into town won’t inform the locals as to the extent of the danger. Of course, the town will start to experience strange disappearances, strange noises, strange power surges. Of course, this will all build to a climax of noise and action and through it all the characters will work through their personal struggles. But the film never plays out as if it were all so predetermined. Here’s a film that’s a Möbius strip of homage that still plays authentically as far as its characters are concerned. We may have seen movies of this kind before – so have these characters – but these characters have never lived this kind of intensified fantastical danger before.

These young actors have impressively natural screen presences; they’re relaxed and fun. It’s a group of exceedingly comfortable performances that blend nicely together. They’re authentic young people, not mere Hollywood ideas of what young people are, and it never feels like a false idea that these kids would be good friends. Fanning is incredible, so subtly charming, but the real standout is Joel Courtney. In his first film role he has the difficult task of being the emotional and physical center of the plot and he’s more than ready to handle the responsibility. He’s has an easy charm and an open expressiveness that’s immediately engaging. He’s a nice kid; I wanted him to succeed.

The adults tend to blend into the background of the story, but Kyle Chandler has such a deep, loving presence that it’s easy to care for the father-son relationship, to feel his grief and his confusion. How will he grow closer with his son? It’s easy as well to sympathize with his increasingly worried attempts to investigate and make sense of the strange events that are encroaching upon the town’s sense of safety. He’s a good man trying hard to do what’s right by his son and his town.

It’s a film in which, yes, there are all kinds of sci-fi elements that sneak around the margins and draw more and more of the film’s overt attention, but which is ultimately more interested in using its genre appeal to crystallize characterization. It’s a film that uses its crises to allow its characters to find their best selves. In that way it’s a nice coming-of-age story that allows its characters to love that which they must eventually leave behind. Their comfortable safety, their predictable lives, their childhoods, the way things used to be, all will eventually change. This is a film named after an old technology, set in the past, filtered through the movie-influenced childhood memories and influences of its creator, yet it is ironically about change, about learning from, and surviving, your experiences and emerging from them a better person.

In Super 8, the emotions are as choreographed and plotted out as the suspense. It alternates moments of down-to-earth characterization with moments of otherworldly chills tied together with a typically wonderful score from the versatile Michael Giacchino. This is a character-based blast of a popcorn entertainment. It’s expertly manipulative and throat-chokingly sentimental, just what a skilled piece of pop moviemaking should be. It never reaches the same levels of greatness as its influences, but it’s nice to see someone interested in reaching for that level who very nearly succeeds.

Note: One of Abrams's old super-8 collaborators is director Matt Reeves who, with Cloverfield and Let Me In, made even better examples of turning the same influences into art.

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