Thursday, June 23, 2011

REVIEW: Super 8

Those who gripe that Steven Spielberg dumbed down American movies really need to see Super 8.

The common party line against Spielberg is that American movies were hip and edgy and personal in the early 1970s, then Spielberg, George Lucas, et al came along and ruined everything with their mass-marketed entertainments like Jaws, Star Wars and Close Encounters. Overnight, studios went from making the great American movie to the great American hit.

Super 8 proves these naysayers wrong, even though Spielberg himself didn't direct the movie.

Granted, Spielberg was a hands-on producer of the film, and writer-director J.J. Abrams is very obviously paying homage to his boss/mentor. But in so doing, Abrams reminds us of a time when movies were pure, joyous entertainments and not labored, busy marketing machines.

Even something as decent as Thor or as accomplished as Cars never quite escapes the fact that it's trying to sell comics, toys, sequels, soundtracks, etc. Super 8 is never concerned with selling anything other than itself. And it sold me so much I bought it twice so far.

Of course, a large part of it was a nostalgia blast for me, not only for the late 70s (fictional) Southwest Ohio setting, but for its technique. The picture heavily evokes the wide-eyed wonder of early Spielberg movies, with the most obvious inspiration being Close Encounters. Both movies are filled with wide compositions such as a large object dominating one side of the screen while a smaller object provides contrast. Both films are replete with lens flare, swooping overhead crane shots, and push-ins on actors with their hair blowing in the wind (machine).

The visual effects, created partly by master Dennis Muren, never once feel fake, nor do they look too modern. In particular, a train crash scene takes its place in cinema history as the most spectacular one ever shot. It's at once horrifying and thrilling, which is a very tricky balance to master.

But Super 8 is much more than just excellent technique. It's also wonderfully human, particularly in the unforced, guileless performances of the young actors. Joel Courtney is a real find as the lead, Joe, a makeup specialist who is coping with the death of his mom in an industrial accident. Riley Griffiths is funny and touching as Charles, the self-appointed boss of a group of friends and the writer-director of the home movie that drives the story.

But besting even them is the remarkable Elle Fanning, who gives a wonderful  performance as Alice, the girl who seems remarkably talented, yet also vulnerable - the kind of girl I once fell for. Fanning's ability to modulate emotions so quickly and convincingly makes her a marvel to watch, perhaps even more than her accomplished sister Dakota. Elle deserves consideration for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She's that good.

Does Super 8 measure up to those early Spielberg classics? Not quite. The sci-fi part of the story doesn't gel as well as the dramatic side, and the ending struck me as a bit too pat and abrupt, with symbolism that was a little too on the nose.

Still, where Spielberg and Abrams differ, at least in terms of Spielberg's early films, is that Spielberg excelled at telling stories of individuals, or small groups of people, like the trio on the boat in Jaws or Roy Neary in Close Encounters. Abrams is a bit more adept at ensembles, which is why Mission; Impossible 3 was the film that best captured the team spirit of the TV show. It's also a large part of why his Star Trek reboot worked so well.

I'm sure there won't be a sequel to Super 8, even though I wouldn't at all mind seeing a follow-up called Betamax.

No, scratch that. Not as romantic. Best to leave very well enough alone.


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