Thursday, June 16, 2011

Super 8

First thing's first, Super 8 is not a monster movie. But then again, neither was ET, and that didn't seem to hurt its receipts (it made nearly 800 million dollars worldwide, #4 all time). But still, ET didn't have to deal with the monstrosity that makes up a successful ad campaign these days. 'Exclusive' clips and teaser trailers often leak out years before a movie comes to fruition. Blogs report breaking news from the set and take contraband photos to satiate fans and maintain excitement. Through this exhausting promotional process, a crucial part of the film experience is lost; mystery. I'm sure JJ Abrams did his best to protect Super 8 from this fate, but concessions must be made, and the studio cut a trailer that made the film look more like Transformers than Close Encounters, which is a shame because it deserves better. I would be a hypocrite if I railed against the 'spoiling' of films by powerful studios and then proceeded to give away the plot of the film in this review, so I will steer clear of details, and instead explain why I think it is a great film, Spielberg homage or not.

The most affecting sci-fi gets that way by projecting the story through children. The circumstances are variable and irrelevant. Finding buried treasure, making a zombie film, retrieving a toy all inevitably lead to the discovery of something much bigger, and it becomes the kids responsibility to inform the adults and save the world. Donnie Darko, The Goonies, ET, The Iron Giant, even Home Alone follow this formula, and succeed because of it. Super 8 introduces these elements as well as any of them, and uses it effectively to balance the two converging story lines. Admittedly, adventurous kids alone doesn't make a film, but Abrams wrings some fantastic scenes out of these young actors, and once the actual 'sci-fi' starts, we'd almost prefer just to stick with the kids for another 90 minutes.

Surprisingly, even as the plot continues to expand and envelop a larger cast of characters, the kids remain front and center, and the film never becomes a string of ham-fisted dramatic scenes a la War of the Worlds. Abrams smartly keeps the family dynamics ambiguous and allows us to piece it together scene by scene. He also resists artistic flourishes or disorienting camera angles, instead using some manipulative and borderline distracting music and Spielberg's patented refracted light effects that come across more endearing than cliche. The acting across the board is fantastic, and the action scenes are well choreographed and fully realized without feeling like sensory overload. Despite the familiar material, Abrams has several tricks up his sleeve, many of which he refreshingly uses to empower the kids. There are no frustrating scenes of kids desperately trying tell their parents what they've seen and being sent to their room. Each character has a functional brain and pieces clues together, intersecting briefly to share information and then diverging again. It shouldn't be surprising when characters aren't paper-thin caricatures, but it is. The story resolves neatly and admirably, without shortcuts or contrivance, and although I can't promise you unscathed heartstrings, Abrams earns it.

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