Posted by: Trey | 06/11/2011

“Production Values!”

Super 8 (2011)

Trey’s rating: 4 Spielbergs (out of 5)

It has been said that with North by Northwest Alfred Hitchcock made the quintessential Hitchcock film by intentionally filling it with as many “Hitchcock moments” – tropes, gags, and sequences that had become associated with the director throughout his career – as he could.  Love it or hate it, J. J. Abrams appears to have set out to make the quintessential Steven Spielberg movie.

I went out of my way to know as little as possible going into this movie.  I’m vaguely aware that there was viral marketing and such, but if it wasn’t in a theatrical trailer, I didn’t see it.  In deference to those who, like me, want that sort of movie experience, I’ll do my best to avoid too much plot summary or spoilers.  In making his late 70s/80s Spielbergian sci-fi movie, Abrams utilizes virtually every trope that Spielberg combined in films such as E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even his more recent work.  Thus, you get some unresolved daddy issues, untrustworthy government/military types, kids who are more observant/knowledgeable than the adults, and some others I won’t go into.  The movie evokes a time when movies weren’t afraid to allow kids to talk like kids (unrestrained cursing and all), and a time when a character could almost get away with blaming the Russians with a straight face.

The movie is at its best when it deals with (I’m choosing my words carefully here) the human element.  The kids are all very good, and considering how much of the story unfolds from their point of view, it could have easily gone wrong.  Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning (sister of Dakota) were easily my favorite actors in the film, and when all the kids are together it plays like a quirky combination of The Goonies and the autobiographical anecdotes of Sam Raimi & Bruce Campbell.  The adult actors are also good, although they are given substantially less to do, and their characters don’t get the same level of development as the kids.

It is not too far off the mark to think of the movie as Stand By the Goonies’ Close Encounter of the E.T. Kind, or some other hodgepodge of Spielberg (and Spielberg-ish) properties.  This is both Super 8‘s blessing and its curse.  It evokes the kind of science fiction film that simply isn’t made anymore, and a big part of that is that, like in the best of Spielberg’s films, it seldom loses sight of its human characters.  However, in the 70s and 80s, this made Spielberg’s films unique, and dare I say groundbreaking.  Here, the best Abrams can really hope for is accomplishing a semblance of what Spielberg did.  I don’t necessarily think this is bad – it’s a kind of film that has not been made in years, and for people who didn’t grow up watching Spielberg movies it could certainly seem like something new.  However, the end result for me was a warm blanket of nostalgia.

As far as real negative impressions, I thought the weakest part of the film was the science fiction element.  The designs are all good (if a little too similar to the kind of things seen in other Abrams-related films Star Trek and Cloverfield), but I really wish there had been more practical effects.  It’s not that the CGI was poorly done – it actually fit in with the rest of the footage pretty well – but I just would have liked to see some animatronics or puppet work, at least for some of the shots.  In the end, I didn’t feel any of those sequences leave me with the sense of wonder that I felt I was supposed to be getting.  In fact, it felt like there could have been a whole other alternate movie that just followed the kids as they worked on their movie throughout the summer (and I would have watched and enjoyed that one as well).  I guess (maybe because of the CGI, maybe because Abrams was trying so hard to evoke Spielberg) the sci-fi scenes felt a little too calculated and pre-planned.  A lot of the jumps and scares were predictable, and it lacked the sense of unpredictability that would have made the movie pitch-perfect.  They’re still fun to watch, and exciting to a point, but those elements are, for me, what kept this from getting a 5 out of 5.

Super 8 is a film that struggles with the double-edged sword of nostalgia.  It is one of the most original summer movies I’ve seen in a while (maybe since District 9), but without being directly connected to any one prior film it consciously owes much of its thematic and stylistic material to the Spielberg filmography.  In trying to make the archetypical Spielberg film Abrams mostly succeeds, although more with the normal suburban situations than with the science fiction elements.  I think Abrams allowed himself to be boxed in by adhering too closely to a Spielbergian template, which at times led to scenes too controlled and preplanned to work as well as they should (come to think of it, I have had similar complaints about some of Spielberg’s later work).  However, as a fan of all the movies Super 8 pays tribute to, I had a lot of fun watching it.  Now I just need to set aside some time to revisit some of my favorite Spielberg sci-fi movies, starting with my favorite: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  My advice is this: Go see Super 8. Take a friend who is unfamiliar with 70s/80s Spielberg. If they like it, get them to watch E.T. and/or Close Encounters.  If Super 8 has a legacy, that will be it – a fun, sincere tribute to a particularly creative period in an auteur’s career.  (Also – keep watching during the credits. You’ll be glad you did.)

© Ralph Lawson III, 2011, All Rights Reserved

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