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Super 8

starring Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Elle Fanning, and Kyle Chandler
written & directed by J. J. Abrams
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.
94%

It is the summer of 1979, and Joe Lamb (Courtney), son of a small-town deputy (Chandler), is adjusting to the loss of his mother and helping his buddy Charles Kaznyk (Griffiths) film a zombie movie. In the midst of capturing a crucial scene late one night, Joe, Charles, their friends, and Alice Dainard (Fanning), witness a catastrophic train accident. The next day, the Air Force is in town, all sorts of strange things are happening, and the kids’ “super 8” camera may have captured some footage that the government doesn’t want anyone to see.

J. J. Abrams is so confoundedly tight-lipped about his film projects that it is difficult to know what manner of revelations about this film would constitute “spoilers.” That makes the reviewing process difficult and unwieldy, but there is nothing complicated or awkward about the simple, undeniable pleasure of watching this movie. With this throwback to the sorts of films Steven Spielberg was making three decades ago, Abrams milks the nostalgia factor just enough to evoke fond memories without losing his storytelling edge.

It would have been so easy for this film to be E.T. meets Cloverfield that it feels almost defiant in turning out to be something else entirely. Every summer we all seem to briefly forget that there can be blockbusters that are about something more than their own special effects, and it’s always a good summer when a movie like Super 8 shows up to remind us. Unlike, say, Pirates 4, this is not a movie about bewildered humans wandering aimlessly through a plotless wasteland of digital creatures and stuff blowing up. It is a movie about grief and forgiveness and friendship and wildly-improbable summer adventures in which things also happen to blow up rather spectacularly from time to time.

In fact, the primacy of story is, if not a major theme of Super 8, at least present as a nod to the audience and a word of advice to other filmmakers. In a scene which crosses the line into meta-commentary on the film itself, Charles explains to Joe that their movie is going to need more than just “good zombie deaths” to compete in the film festival. It needs a story with characters that the audience will care about, or else it will be nothing at all. Although Abrams may have tipped his hand too far with this bit of dialogue, the point is well taken, and even though Abrams has revealed exactly what he’s up to, we find ourselves caught up in the fates of his characters anyway.

It doesn’t hurt that he has assembled a brilliant ensemble of child actors, most of them complete unknowns (with the obvious, but welcome, exception of Elle Fanning). In fact, Super 8 marks the film debuts of both Courtney and Griffiths, the two leads. You’d never know it; they both do a phenomenal job in addition to the novelty of bringing fresh faces to the film. Seriously, where did they find these kids, and how did they get so lucky? But, to see where Abrams is getting his cues, go back to a movie like The Goonies (1985) in which familiar names like Sean Astin and Josh Brolin got their start as unknown child actors headlining a major feature film produced by Spielberg.

Oddly, the mysterious force at the center of the effects-driven mayhem in Super 8 is so totally upstaged by the kids and their story that its presence in the film is almost superfluous. And, although I will play the game and avoid discussing it further out of respect for anyone who has not yet seen the movie, the level of secrecy, in the advertising and in the movie itself, is absurd. There is nothing particularly original or surprising about the major plot revelations that take place late in the film, and the mystery surrounding the whole business just feels self-indulgent. Abrams should give his film-literate audience a bit more credit. Although, perhaps he simply meant this movie for a generation that hasn’t grown up on a steady summer diet of Spielberg. Either way, that complaint rather pales in the light of a chance to enjoy this welcome dose of fun and meaningful blockbuster fare.

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~ by Jared on June 10, 2011.

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