Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New Release Review: Super 8 (J.J Abrams, 2011)

I'll start by saying that I loved almost all of Super 8, but I found myself rolling my eyes a little too often in the final third, which is the film's key substantial weakness. It was almost a great film, and while I respect J.J Abrams' ambitions and understand his intentions of once again providing audiences with a classic feel-good American Summer Blockbuster, Super 8 became so determined to be an homage that it's transition into a monster film was not as satisfying as one would have hoped. It insufficiently explained some of the questions that so effectively got me hooked.

It essentially requires the viewer to suspend their disbelief and not be put off by a bombardment of generic cliches. The evident implausibility of this story becomes apparent very early, but you should find yourself immediately warmed to the kids and want to see their story unfold. There is no doubt that this is one of the year's most entertaining films, and above all, this is the intention. Fans and admirers of 70's and 80's Spielberg will recognise Abrams' homage to these classics, and will undoubtedly be wrapped up in this film. It is very obvious that either J.J Abrams worships Spielberg's filmmaking, or Spielberg had even more influence than usual as a producer. J.J was clearly reminiscing on his childhood when he wrote the screenplay, deciding to centre the film on a group of kids making a short film on Super 8 cameras. This is where Super 8 wonderfully kicks off.

In Lillian, Ohio in 1979, 13 year old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is passing the summer holidays by helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a short film about Zombies. Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) borrows her father's car and drives Joe, Charles and the rest of the gang, including Cary (Ryan Lee), a pyromaniac, and Ryan (Gabriel Basso), the leading man, to an old train depot to shoot a key scene for the film. Joe is in charge of make-up and sound, while Alice has been recruited to play the female lead. Utilising an on-coming train as 'production value' they start to shoot the scene, but Joe is distracted as he witnesses a truck drive onto the tracks towards the oncoming train, causing an explosive derailment. The kids barely survive and approach the truck to find their biology teacher (somehow alive) behind the wheel. He instructs them to leave immediately and to never tell anyone what they have witnessed.

Joe and his father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) have been forced through circumstance to mend their distant relationship. Joe's mother was crushed to death in an industrial accident, called into work because Alice's father Louis (Ron Eldard), an alcoholic, called in sick. Unable to forgive Louis for his indirect involvement, tensions exists between the families. Following the train derailment, the military, led by the no-nonsense commanding officer, Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), secure the crash site and fearing the repercussions of the lost cargo, attempt to make sense of the Super 8 film box left at the site. The children's desire to forget what they saw becomes impossible when a number of strange phenomena around town indicate that a creature is on the loose, made even more desperate when Alice is abducted. With no alternative but to bring in the 'big guns' the military decide to evacuate the entire town to a nearby Air Force base.

The films final third, following this evacuation, is disappointing. It begins to rely on jump-scares and quick flashes of the monster to create suspense. There were decisions that made no sense, justifications that served little explanation to the motives and activities of the monster and light flares that had no business. For a man whose monster in Lost was a giant puff of smoke (well, it may have become something more meaningful in the latter seasons), this really proved that J.J Abrams has few ideas on what to do with monsters.

With the delayed revelation of the antagonist resembling Jaws, the Cloverfield-like multi-legged creature escapes its transportation (in much the same way as the Dinosaurs escaped their enclosures in Jurassic Park) and has free reign over the town of Lillian. A number of strange occurrences; the disappearance of dogs all over town, the theft of appliances, and several human disappearances, send the town into a frenzy with no one to turn to but the Deputy Sheriff, like in...Jaws. Okay, so this does borrow from a bunch of films.

The kids all work great as a unit, and this is one of the best films centred almost exclusively on kids since Rob Reiner's Stand By Me. The written dialogue is believable (and funny), each of the kids have a unique and relevant personality and their chemistry feels completely natural. The strongest bond, of course, is between Joe and Alice, with Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning giving the standout performances (though I thought Riley Griffith was great too). Their love-story is genuinely warming, and the pair are really natural in presenting that first crush awkwardness. It remains resonant throughout the film, easily overshadowing the estranged father/son relationship that is ludicrously healed in the all-too-neat ending.

I found myself reminiscing on my youth, when I was once carefree and adventurous, and became really involved in the story. The Zombie film is such a charming motivation to base these characters around. An endeavour such as filmmaking is creative, adventurous and inspiring and sets the stage for this coming of age drama. Once the film abandons the film-within-a-film premise, it becomes only sporadically exciting, enters territory so obvious (and silly) and became more interested in the spectacle. This is quite underwhelming considering the thoughtful, ambitious and compelling build-up.

While Super 8 was one of the most anticipated 'original' blockbusters, this is one notable feature it does lack. This is not as big a negative as you might expect. It is actually quite nostalgic to watch a film, which attempts to recapture the magic of the Spielberg of old. I found it to be exceptionally entertaining, which is all you can ask. I would even say there is some profound and moving childhood drama in there for extra points. There are a few too many of those roll-your-eyes moments to pronounce it a great film, however. I would recommend sticking around for the final credits too. Funny stuff.

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars (B-)


  1. I cared for just about everybody in this film and had a great look and feel to all of the action as well. Favorite of the year so far. Good Review Andy!

  2. ^ Favorite film of the year, Dan?

    Really? Sam's shocked.

    Good review Andy.

  3. Thanks for reading guys. I really cared for all of the kids. Not so much the adults. Along with Rango, this is the most entertaining blockbuster/wide release I have seen this year, but it's not my favourite. Seriously, the best films I have seen this year have mostly come in the last week...

    So far: A Separation, Project Nim, The Tree of Life, Incendies, In A Better World, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Rango, Win Win and Never Let Me Go would probably round out my Top 10.

    I still have 8 films to see at the SFF. OMG.

  4. Loved the film as well, even if it had a very formulaic story, the characters redeemed most of it. Being a filmmaker myself I was very charmed by them as well.

  5. Thanks for visiting Vik, and for the comment. I thought the kids were great. That passion for filmmaking sure was infectious!