05 July 2011
When 14 year-old Joe Lamb, the make-up artist for a motley crew of schoolboy filmmakers, gently applies foundation to face of Alice, the attractive new star of the their adolescent zombie film, all cynicism fades away. In this moment, the awkward, exciting and wonderful time on the cusp of young adulthood is captured perfectly by J. J. Abrams, the director and writer of Super 8.
The scene is masterful, original, and acted superbly by the young Joel Courtney and the impressive Elle Fanning -she plays the steel town ingenue the boys have recruited to add emotion to their no budget scare picture. And there are more pleasures to come during this clandestine night shoot at an abandoned railway platform in the rolling Ohio hills. Alice shows herself to be a natural at this acting thing as the boys, (along with us,) are rendered speechless by just her rehearsal of the cliched, B-movie dialogue.
But this is not a coming-of-age piece, it is a summer blockbuster, and so the beat needs to change fast. Rather than a drama in the mold of Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, we are in for a 2011 action adventure in the spirit of Transformers or Unstoppable.
It is probably not giving away too much to write that it is at this moment on the train platform - at the pinnacle of the film's pop cinema artistry - that the whole story comes literally and figuratively off the rails. More the pity that it is still pretty early in the film when this happens.
The kids are excited to get "production value" from a real train that materializes on the horizon, but their delight soon turns to terror as the passing freight cars derail. Suddenly, our young heroes are caught in a maelstrom of destruction that hasn't been seen since Hollywood's last disaster picture. As Joe and his friends zig-zag between twisted metal wreckage and exploding tanker cars, the sound level amps up and the effects become a little silly. We know that these likable kids aren't going to die, and this awareness renders the sequence as harmless as the plastic-eyed zombies in the Super 8 movie the kids are making. If this is supposed to be an homage to the early films of Spielberg, I must have missed something in the oeuvre of the famous director of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws and E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial.
After the crash, the kids are given a warning by a survivor. Then, right on cue, scary government forces arrive on the scene, complete with flashlights bobbing in the darkness. If you have seen the trailer for Super 8, I don't have to tell you that mysterious things begin to happen in the town. Miles of telephone wires vanish, as do appliances, dogs and people.
The idea of the kids using this strange and dangerous occurrence as a backdrop to their film is fun and inventive. For instance, when the military tanks roll into the neighborhood, the youngsters hastily set up their cameras for a scene in which their police detective hero questions a friend from Vietnam. It is simultaneously humorous and suspenseful - the Air Force police will no doubt see this any minute!
However, instead of the mystery gradually building, as it did in say, Close Encounters, every mystery is annoyingly answered in very short order.
You see, rather than watching the kids poking their noses around, we are treated to Joe's dad, a deputy sheriff, doing a high level investigation, including butting heads with a no-nonsense Air Force Colonel who assures the townsfolk that nothing dangerous was on that train!
In the land of E.T., The Goonies, or even the non-Speilberg-ian 80's film The Lost Boys, the excitement came from the kids finding the resources within themselves to figure things out. If those conventions could be construed as appealing to the kids of divorce culture, I could probably make a case for Super 8 being the reinforcement of helicopter parenting. Every odd happening we witness is countered by the local police force closing in on the truth behind the military maneuvers.
Further exacerbating this issue is the fact that the Joe's dad is one of the more intriguing characters in the entire movie, that is, aside from another father figure. Alice's dad is a shaggy rough, working class type who is strangely insecure. The movie's efficient prologue sets up that the two fathers have some type of animosity towards one another revolving around the accidental death of Joe's mom, who worked at the steel mill. Both the men seem haunted, alienated and overly protective of their children. By contrast, the kids seem extremely well-adjusted.
Abrams is smart enough to sense this, and even tries to force a moment between the two men near the end of the film.
Alas, it is too late at that point. Between government plots, themes of loss, cheap monster movie thrills and set pieces clumsily staged in reverence to Speilberg, the director of the complexly plotted television hit Lost, finds himself rushing to tie everything together in a third act that sends the town into a kind of military- run refugee camp and sends the kids back into the abandoned town, which has become a chaotic war zone. If you think the train derailment is a bit over the top, wait until you see the mayhem going on later in the film.
When the kids are in control, Abrams seems more in control. At these times his shots and techniques, while not quite innovative, approach a kind of mastery. However, when the menace is growing, the film seems unsure, hurried and a bit aimless. The picture grows louder and more frenetic, as if to compensate for its fraying narrative and growing incoherence.
Joe's dad is played by Kyle Chandler, from television's Friday Night Lights, and his presence only increased my hunch that this whole endeavor might have been played out better as a one-season premium cable series on HBO, Showtime or TNT.
However, there is no denying that the kids are great, and the faux late '70's feel is just right for the multiplex - not detailed enough to alienate younger viewers, but nostalgic enough to keep the interest of older ones. And Abrams appears to be playing on several meta-levels, but it is hard to pin down where his irony ends and the commercialism begins.
The dichotomy of the visceral thrills of horror and the stunning wonder of science fiction actually represents a missed opportunity. The late 1970's were not only Spielberg's dominant years, but other forces were prevalent on the genre scene as well. George A Romero's Dawn of the Dead had recently stormed into theaters about a year before Super 8 is set, but rather than taking from Romero's style, Abrams only humorously references him as the inspiration of the kid's zombie movie. John Carpenter's Halloween had just blown the box office doors off in 1978 and it was soon to be followed by Ridley Scott's outer space monster movie masterpiece Alien. While there is obviously an H.R. Giger nod in the concept of the menace terrorizing the small town in Abram's film, I wish it also had included some of Scott's techniques and artistry as well.