Super 8: Not Quite Spielberg, But Still Pretty Super

Super 8 is a kids’ movie. The kids have potty mouths, they fight over girls, they fight with their parents, and they work on a project over the summer– a zombie film– that feels like the most important thing in the world. In short, they’re real kids. Spielberg used to be in charge of sci-fi/fantasy movies like these, films like E.T., Gremlins, and The Goonies. Now, with JJ Abrams, he’s produced another in Super 8, a wildly entertaining, suspenseful, and funny alien romp seen through the eyes of children. It doesn’t quite capture the magic of the aforementioned three, but this summer, it’s the best the studios have yet to offer us.

Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is a 13-year old boy in smalltown Ohio. He just lost his mother in an accident, and his father (Kyle Chandler) doesn’t really know how to be a father. He spends most of his free time with his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), who plans on creating a zombie movie to submit to a Cleveland film competition. One night, while filming with Charles, his friends Carey (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso), Preston (Zach Mills), and older girl Alice (Elle Fanning) at a train station, a military train derails in violent fashion, nearly killing them all. Joe sees the door of one of the boxcars loudly rocket into the sky, and they all find their biology teacher, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), is the man responsible for derailing the truck with his truck. They continue shooting the movie, even as the military becomes a presence in the town for mysterious reasons. And power outages begin to grow common. And all the dogs in town run away. And people begin disappearing.

By far and away, the best part of this movie is the interaction between the kids. I cherished the scenes in which they sat around a diner table even more than the giant effects-laden attack sequences. Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths, both first-time film actors, are sensational– Courtney has the perfect Henry Thomas-esque wide-eyed charisma necessary, and Griffiths is like a cross between Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, rattling off one-liners and cursing like a natural. Even more terrific is Elle Fanning, who may have outdone any performance by her sister Dakota here. In an integral scene, Alice is learning how to act, and her first performance for Charles’ camera makes everyone fall in love with her. Fanning plays this scene beautifully– it’s a funny, moving moment. Fanning watching a Super 8 film of Joe’s mother and recounting the story of her dad (Ron Eldard)’s involvement with the accident is also lovely. It’s the type of perfect performance in a big action film that never gets noticed come awards season, which is a shame.

The script, also written by Abrams, is pitch-perfect in these scenes between the kids. Other critics have used a comparison to Robert Altman in terms of how the dialogue overlaps and sounds “real;” it’s not any different than the dinner table scenes in E.T., though. When a large group of kids are together, they all want to share their ideas and talk at once. It’s reality, and Abrams captures it. Less successful are his depictions of the father-child relationships Joe and Alice have– they come close to one-note, and the children are so interesting that when Kyle Chandler is running around trying to be the hero, it’s not nearly as engaging. Chandler and Eldard do what they can, but Abrams should have taken a lesson from The Goonies and E.T.– the parents should stay in the periphery, out of the spotlight, only serving as outside influences from the point of view of our heroes, the children.

The action scenes are suspenseful, one of which resulted in my date jumping out of her chair damn near onto my lap. Abrams knows that the scariest thing is what’s lurking in the shadows, something unknown, suggested by sound and circumstance. A few times, he employs the “casual conversation interrupted by something loud and scary,” so for the rest of the film, you’re totally on edge. It’s a bit tricky and manipulative, but it absolutely does the job and feels less contrived than the prototypical thriller scares. Abrams also lets characters die in violent ways, thank God. There’s nothing worse than a movie that protects children from the ways violent scenarios would play out by making them bloodless or cutting the camera away. These kids would see disembodied limbs and would see blood splatter, so why not show us that these kids are seeing it? Spielberg used to be comfortable with kids encountering guns and kids witnessing murders, so it’s good to see it again here. Abrams also has an emotional climax that I’ve read some deride as “corny.” The endings of E.T., Close Encounters, The Goonies, etc., are all corny if you’re not attached to the characters. If you grow to enjoy the characters in Super 8 as I did, then you’ll see why the end of the film has to be the way it is, and why it’s perfect for this type of film.

It’s scary being a kid in real life. Not being able to talk to a girl feels like the end of the world. Having your dad ground you feels like the greatest injustice in society. Finishing the goal of your summer with your friends is more noble than the Quest for the Holy Grail. Stakes are high. The number one mistake movies make is making children stupid, because they mistake innocent for naivete. As a teacher, I can be the first to tell you– kids ALWAYS know what is going on. They pick up on it. Good kids swear more than you want them to. Good kids sneak out of the house without telling their parents. This doesn’t make them punk kids or bad kids… they’re just kids. Roger Ebert says that the best kids’ movies are weird or scary, and this certainly qualifies as both. It’s not on the same level as the others– the tones between the thriller and coming-of-age sections are a bit jarring at times, and though both sections work really well, the transitions failing to be seamless somehow makes the film feel less… magical. There are some missteps, and I don’t think this movie will necessarily go on the pantheon of all-time great summer flicks (though with repeated viewings, it may appreciate)– but it’s a very enjoyable throwback that comes as close to being great as any 2011 summer movie.

~ by russellhainline on June 15, 2011.

One Response to “Super 8: Not Quite Spielberg, But Still Pretty Super”

  1. […] ORIGINAL SCORE: 10. Michael Giacchino, Super 8 9. Hans Zimmer, Rango 8. Roger Neill, Dave Palmer, & Brian Reitzell, Beginners 7. Alberto […]

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