Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Super 8 / ***½ (PG-13)

Joe Lamb: Joel Courtney
Alice Dainard: Elle Fanning
Charles: Riley Griffiths
Cary: Ryan Lee
Martin: Gabriel Basso
Preston: Zach Mills
Jackson Lamb: Kyle Chandler
Louis Dainard: Ron Eldard
Nelec: Noah Emmerich

Paramount Pictures presents a film written and directed by J.J. Abrams. Running time: 112 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use).

I was watching an old episode of Siskel & Ebert the other day. It was a special episode where they made their favorite summer movie recommendations. Gene Siskel made a comment near the end of the program about how most great summer movies took place in the late fifties or early sixties, before central air conditioning was available in most houses, because you could feel the heat of the summer in those eras. Well, that’s all well and good for his generation, but summer for my generation always had central air. What defines a great summer movie for me has to do with a different kind of atmosphere. It’s darker than the movies Siskel & Ebert ran down in that early 90s episode of their show. It involves being a kid and doing things your parents weren’t aware of. It often involved movies, because that’s when we saw most of the movies we’d see throughout the year. More often than not they were movies directed by Steven Spielberg.

J.J. Abrams ("Star Trek") remembers summer in the same way. He’s made a wonderful homage to early Spielberg with his latest summer flick “Super 8”. It’s such good homage, he even got Spielberg to produce it. It has moments that will remind you of Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”. It even has a leading cast of kids like “The Goonies”. It takes place in a typical Spielbergian suburban setting. It helps that it takes place during the summer of 1979, right smack dab in the middle of Spielberg’s amazing run of summer blockbusters. We’ll just forget about “1941”.

Like many of Spielberg’s movies that helped to define the summers of my youth, “Super 8” follows a group of kids going into their summer vacation. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is an ambitious child filmmaker, much like Spielberg was himself. He’s recruited all of his friends to help him make a zombie movie over the summer to enter into a filmmaking contest. Joe (Joel Courteny)—Charles’s best friend and make up artist—is coming off a tumultuous year, having recently lost his mother in a steel factory accident. Joe’s father, Jack (Kyle Chandler), is a deputy Sheriff. Jack wants to send Joe to a summer camp to take both their minds off their loss.

Charles recruits a girl, Alice (Elle Fanning, “Somewhere”), to play a character in his film. He thinks she will add weight to the script and she has access to a car. Joe is enamored with Alice, but she does not reciprocate at first. When they are filming a scene at a train station one evening, Charles decides to film while the train is passing by to give the movie more authenticity. Joe notices a truck pulling onto the train tracks in front of the train. The two collide and set into motion events that are too spectacular and wondrous to happen in real life, but contain the same fear and paranoia that exist in our world and provide for great summer entertainment.

The train wreck is beyond spectacular. It makes the train crash in “The Fugitive” look like the derailings you caused on your model train tracks in the basement. In fact, it may have been too much of a crash. I had a little trouble believing any of these kids could’ve survived the thing. But, this loud and calamitous crash only cushion’s the blow of the events that are about to unfold. Abrams is good at only hinting at what’s in store for this town. Like Spielberg’s “Jaws”, we don’t get to see any of what escapes from the wreckage until well into the movie, but we do get what seems to be a crazy old man with oblique warnings of what has befallen this town.

Abrams embraces Spielberg’s fascination with the military and government conspiracy as the abrasive Helec (Noah Emmerich, “Pride and Glory”) commands the troops that descend upon the small Ohio town to clean up the wreckage. Helec is very interested to know what the kids might’ve filmed at the crash and actively pursues their identities. Concerned about danger to his citizens, Jack tries to get some answers from Helec, but is stonewalled. This cleverly brings Jack and Joe onto the same trajectory at the center of the strange events that begin to occur all over town.

I wouldn’t begin to suggest what is really going on in this movie, as discovering that is much of its appeal. It’s so rare in today’s hard sell movie market to go into a movie and not know all the major plot points ahead of time. Abrams managed this with a mysterious marketing campaign. The fact that there are no major stars in the picture is also a throwback to 70s filmmaking. Stars have always held box office power, but there was a time when a film could pull off ticket sales without them. They were called sleepers. All of the kids, except for Elle Fanning, are first time movie stars. Fanning has yet to prove herself in summer blockbuster fare. Even the adult actors are marginal stars, Chandler holds the most weight coming off the critically lauded, yet low rated television show “Friday Night Lights”.

The greatest success of this movie isn’t it’s mystery or the special effects, or even the science fiction allegory of how it connects the beginning of the atomic age with the fears of the 80s nuclear age. I loved the woman in the town meeting who was convinced that this was a sign that the Russians were invading. No, Abrams’ greatest achievement here is how he so accurately resurrects what it was like to see a movie in the late seventies and early eighties, simply by making one as if it was that time period. Perhaps this element is not as important to some viewers as it is to me, but it reminds us of how much our technology has changed the way movies are made today. And, it shows that we can use today’s technology to make movies the way we used to, when it all seemed so much more magical.

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