Super 8 (Review)

J.J. Abrams' newest feature Super 8 offers nostalgic thrills reminiscent of Spielberg's early work

Over the course of the last 35+ years Steven Spielberg has lead an incredibly storied career, being not only one of Hollywood’s leading directors and producers, but also one of the few of his kind to become such a widely recognized household name to an entire nation.  His career has undergone numerous shifts in tone over the years, covering an impossibly wide range of genres which has allowed him to touch nearly everyone at one point or another though his films.

Now, with his newest production, Spielberg has backed director J.J. Abrams for what is essentially a homage to the early portion of his own career, told through J.J.’s eyes in an original story that combines several of the best elements from films like E.T., The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even a bit of Jurassic Park.  I assume this was a passion project for Abrams, who shows a clear love and admiration for Spielberg’s work.  And to his credit, he has succeeded in crafting a suitably epic and emotionally captivating story that replicates the timeless quality present in so many of Spielberg’s films, while also integrating his own melodramatic writing style and flashy visuals drenched in lens flares.

Abrams doesn't hold back on the lens flares - a technique that is coming to define the director's visual style

The result is quite breathtaking most of the time thanks in large part to the talented ensemble cast of young actors (the likes of which we hardly see anymore in modern cinema), as well as the poignant and nostalgic emotional highs of both the filmmaking plot and the family drama/love story.  Character has always been where Abrams excels most, and Super 8 is no exception.  Despite the engrossing sci-fi mystery that develops, it is still the simpler scenes between the central characters which function as the heart and crutch of the film, grounding it in realism even as the plot becomes more and more unbelievable.

The film’s leading character Joe (Joel Courtney) and his love interest Alice (Elle Fanning) both deliver phenomenally strong performances despite their ages and limited experience in front of the camera, as does the ambitious would-be filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths) who steals several of the film’s scenes with his comedic portrayal of an “auteur” director.  The eventual screening of his finished film (a zombie short entitled “The Case”) during the credits was something of a show-stealer, bringing back the sense of childhood fun that infected the earlier portions of the film and ending on an appropriately light beat.

Super 8 works best when focusing on the trials and tribulations of Charles' zombie film project, which acts as a catalyst for the greater story that develops

J.J. also makes excellent use of the ’70s time period, achieving such an effective “classic” look for the film that it begins to feel at times as if it was actually made 20 or 30 years ago, were it not for the occasional breathtaking action/disaster sequence that pops up to remind us of the modern technologies at play in its creation.

The “creature” at the centre of the plot is left largely unseen and unexplained until later into the film’s runtime, reflecting, I suppose, the minimalist style of Jaws is some ways.  But more accurately, this is just that same familiar trick that J.J. often likes to pull where he holds out almost entirely regarding the nature of a “monster,” cutting it just barely out of the shots and focusing on the actors’ awestruck expressions as opposed to the otherworldly thing they’re looking at (see LOST, Cloverfield).  This works fine in the context of the story, except for the fact that the eventual reveal is rather unimpressive, with the creature feeling at times as if it lacks a distinct or clear vision.  This hinders the final act from fully delivering on the promise of the rest of the film, which is slightly upsetting since the buildup was so engrossing that we almost feel as if we deserved more than what we got.

A gorgeous teaser poster for the film

Despite its reliance on pre-existing plot devices and its failure to truly blow us away in the finale, Super 8 is still such an undeniably well-made and well-acted piece of filmmaking that these things never hinder it from being a unique and powerful work of art unto itself.  This is one of those cases where it is indeed the journey and not the destination that comes to define the experience of the film.  The extremely talented cast and assured direction of Abrams (with the help of Spielberg over his shoulder) make this a modern classic that falls just short of being a masterpiece; and if nothing else, it is a gift to be able to revisit the feeling of wonder that came to define the early works of one of cinema’s greatest masters.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Super 8 (2011, USA, PG-13: 112 mins).  Directed by: J.J. Abrams.  Produced by: Steven Spielberg.  Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, and Riley Griffiths.

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~ by Mark D'Amico on June 13, 2011.

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