Super 8 (2011)

17 Mar

Super-8-Movie-Image-2

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

To get straight to the point before I type my review, “Super 8,” one of the most highly anticipated movies of the 2011 summer season, is a love letter to the summer blockbuster season—it has gripping action, first-rate special effects, and great acting. Take all of those elements up a notch and there’s a movie that deserves four stars from me.

“Super 8” clearly loves the tradition of the summer blockbuster. It reminds of how “Jaws” created that phrase. And that reference to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 hit brings us to this note: “Super 8,” which was produced by Spielberg himself, is also in the tradition of the early Spielberg classics, paying homages to “Jaws,” “Close Encounters,” “ET,” “Poltergeist,” and “The Goonies.” We have a likable bunch of kids as the film’s central heroes, an ominous threat, a small town, awe-inspiring visuals, and scary moments to boot. Writer-director J.J. Abrams, of “Lost,” “Mission: Impossible III,” and “Star Trek,” obviously has a great affection for Spielberg and “Super 8” is his way of showing that as a tribute to Spielbergian elements.

Abrams also shows his affection for filmmaking. When he was a kid, he was making movies in his neighborhood with an 8mm camera. Spielberg did the same, as the kids in “Super 8” do. The film takes place in 1979—no iPods, Smart Phones, or Internet are found here. Instead, the kids use whatever they can get ahold of, even if at one point it’s another kid’s dad’s Super 8 camera. The kids (each about 12 years old) are Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), the makeup artist; Charles (Riley Griffiths), the intense director; Cary (Ryan Lee), the pyromaniac practical-effects expert; Martin (Gabriel Basso), the nervous leading actor; and Preston (Zach Mills), the lighting guy. They’re making a zombie movie in their small town of Lillian, Ohio, and they need a leading lady. So they recruit Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s sister), one of the prettiest girls in school.

Alice is unsure of Joe because both their fathers—Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) and Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard)—hate each other and their kids. You see, Joe lost his beloved mother to an accident at the factory she works in, and his father hates Louis because he couldn’t make his shift at that same factory and Joe’s mother had to fill in for him. Jackson blames Louis for the accident, and tells Joe, whom he barely connects with, to stay clear of Alice. Louis tells Alice to stay clear of Joe. But Joe and Alice, while making Charles’ movie, form a nice friendship together.

Anyway, the kids work on the movie secretly (it’s more fun that way, so no matter). They sneak out in the middle of the night (stealing Alice’s dad’s car) to film a dramatic scene near some train tracks. A train passes by, but this is coming to an advantage—“Production value!” Charles gladly exclaims to his friends. But something goes really, really wrong as the train derails while the kids are filming. In one of the best special-effects sequences I’ve seen recently, the kids nearly get killed as they outrun the train cars and debris crashing down. You’ve seen parts of this sequence in the trailer (and in FOX sneak peeks), but once you’ve seen the whole sequence, you’ll realize how “insane” the actual scene is. I mean it—when I saw that scene, I was close to hyperventilating, and I tell no lie. I was in complete awe and fright. Now, there’s a cinematic experience I’ll never forget.

OK, those who’ve seen the trailers and TV spots know that the train crash was no accident and that something escapes from one of the train cars. We don’t know what it is and we continue to not know until the final act of the film. Following the rule of “Jaws,” we see only glimpses of the monster until its big reveal much later in the film. But whatever it is, it scares all of the dogs in town away, steals almost every electrical appliance in town, and comes out only at night to attack people. What it is, where it came from, and what its true motivations are, I won’t give away.

Anyway, the US Air Force shows up after the big train wreck. At first, it seems as if they are going to clean up after it, but to Deputy Lamb, it becomes clear that they’re here for something more. When he asks Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) if the cargo is anything to be concerned about, he gets the response, “I can assure you the answer is no.” He’s lying. Lamb and Nelec are in a constant battle of wits as Lamb tries to get some answers out of him and hopefully explain to the panicked townspeople exactly what is going on.

Kyle Chandler is so good in these scenes in which he tries to piece things together, much like police chief Martin Brody in “Jaws.” He also has to find way to get through to his son, since he wasn’t as much of a parent as his deceased wife. Chandler handles these scenes in an effectively strong way.

But he’s only in a supporting role. Most of the screen time is given to the kids. They try to get on with their lives after barely surviving witnessing the train derailment. But certain events happen that lead to them searching for clues and figuring out everything about the escaped creature. They’re on a crazy adventure that would make the Goonies envious.

These are some very talented young actors. When playing nerdy adolescents, they don’t seem to be acting at all. You really buy their friendship with each other, whether they’re singing “My Sharona,” playfully trading insults to each other, or just sitting at a diner and talking. They are always convincing and have the energy to carry the film. In particular, Joel Courtney is a promising newcomer whom I hope to see more of in the future, and Elle Fanning (who was last seen as Stephen Dorff’s daughter in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere”) really shows off some acting chops. There are some very touching moments when these two are together, including one in which Joe helps Alice with her zombie makeup and another in which they talk about the accident that killed Joe’s mother. The other kids—Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, and Zach Mills—are likable, funny, and, like I said, convincing. I love how Griffiths handles this role of a bossy, yet chirpy and excited young director and shows a convincing jealous-adolescent side of the character when he knows that Alice likes Joe when he wanted her to like him. Then there’s Lee, who plays the character of a fireworks nut that parents tell their kids to be careful around, and Basso, who is always vomiting whenever he’s scared. It’s amazing these kids are still able to function after what they go through.

I say that last sentence in the previous paragraph because there are many scary moments in “Super 8”—this movie is rated PG-13 not only for its constant use of profanity, you know. This movie is not for those under the ages of 10 or 11. Maybe 12, like the kids in this movie, but I dunno. There’s one particularly frightening scene in which the creature attacks a bus with four of the kids in it. It’s even more effective because the monster still hasn’t been fully seen yet.

I really didn’t mind that the action hits harder when the film reaches the final act. It has to, or it wouldn’t be a summer blockbuster in the 21st century. But these action sequences are exciting and actually have purpose within them. Besides, the whole movie isn’t about action or the creature—it’s about the kids and how they react to this strange, terrifying situation. This is one of the best types of film—the characters are introduced and developed so that when the action happens, it amounts to something. “Super 8” is the best summer blockbuster to come around in a long time.

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