Review: Super 8
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
The most inspired aspect of “Super 8,” J. J. Abrams's heavily shrouded Spielberg homage, is the giddy, geeky celebration of an ongoing lineage of imagineers – budding, sponge-like filmmakers bent on squeezing what they've absorbed from their predecessors into movies of their own. Spielberg was such a person, as is Abrams, as is Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths), the pudgy, authoritative 14-year-old maestro of “Super 8,” whose tunnel-like devotion to craft Abrams effectively lampoons. The unofficial leader of a gaggle of teens living in the fictitious town of Lillian, Ohio circa 1979, Charles is a resourceful, but constantly stressed, visionary who's breathlessly driven to complete a zombie movie for entry in an amateur film fest. With only his friends' help and a Super 8 camera to boast, the mini-George Romero complains a lot about his lack of “production value,” which puts him at a competitive disadvantage and forces him to be doubly creative and opportunistic. The parallels to Abrams, who wrote and directed “Super 8,” and Spielberg, who produced, are more than evident, as both big-budget dreamers started out as no-budget backyard shutterbugs, Spielberg emulating the likes of James Whale and Ray Harryhausen, and Abrams emulating guys like Spielberg. That's the magic to be found here – the multi-generational championing of impassioned, homespun storytelling whose nitty-gritty seeds can sprout cinematic greatness.
In general, though, “magic” and “greatness” are, sadly, not the words I'd reach for when discussing “Super 8,” despite its being an extremely well-made and briskly paced summer creature feature. Already widely hailed for the simple fact that it's not a remake, reboot or sequel, the film seems to also be getting a pass for its billowing plumes of nostalgia, which afford it charm out the wazoo as well as an instant connection to film buffs of a certain age and persuasion. Abrams has no shame in playing up the varying sources from which his story was culled, namely Richard Donner's “The Goonies” and Spielberg's own “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The town of Lillian is a very short stone's throw from Mayberry, its honest citizens taking great pride in their tight-knit conformity. They sigh out of their doily-curtained windows when young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) loses his mother in a factory accident, and conservatively muse over whether or not Joe's deputy dad, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), can manage sole parenting duties. They're only mildly aware of the pastimes of their kids, who make adventurelands of their neighborhoods and through whose eyes we primarily view the events. A sensitive (and obligatorily damaged) maker of model trains and such, Joe, the protagonist, is on Charles's film crew, as is Carey (Ryan Lee), the braced and buck-toothed pyro; Martin (Gabriel Basso), the lean and handsome nerd; Preston (Zach Mills), the skeletal, awkward Other Guy; and Alice (Elle Fanning), the newly-recruited leading lady.
Though initially humdrum, the rapport among the kids becomes a major asset, one that, these days, is not nearly utilized enough. The premise of the film, of course, is that while shooting scenes for the zombie flick at the town train station – just as a train is noisily passing through (“production value!”) – the group witnesses, and catches footage of, the train's violent derailment, subsequently becoming the select few with inside info about the supernatural weirdness that follows. Suffice it to say, sleepy Lillian sees its dogs disappear, its everyday gadgets disappear and its sheriff disappear before a government-run military unit and a certain scaly something turn the place into a veritable war zone. All the while, Charles and his entourage find themselves embroiled in the mystery behind the madness, and wind up working out the kinks of their relationships and childish concerns amidst impossible phenomena. In this respect, Abrams is especially successful, allowing built-in comic relief to naturally manifest during the teens' energetic spats, and briefly returning the summer movie to an audience of children interested in more than just explosions (however young or old those children might be). He draws an excellent performance from young Griffiths, who's funny and aptly overheated as the man behind the camera, and he boosts the talents of Fanning, who, among other things, might just give the best in-film faux audition since Naomi Watts in “Mulholland Drive.”
Even the way Abrams shoots the sky – that big, heavy vanilla sky so indicative of summer – has a wondrous air of youthfulness to it, and it's just one example of the technical skill he pours into “Super 8.” Surely the most visually accomplished of his three features (the other two being “Mission: Impossible III” and the far superior “Star Trek”), this labor of nerdy love is a throwback fantasia flecked with what have fast become Abrams's digital trademarks: the perfectly fluid crane shots, the highly workable and forgiving digital focus, and those beautiful blue lens flares that stretch across the frame. It's a gorgeous experience to watch “Super 8,” a cool hybrid of old-school imagery and sound caught with new-school methods. We hear Michael Giacchino's evocative, harp-tinged score, and see the comfortably eerie Americana of open fields and remote gas stations, but all through a crisp and modern lens. The notion that Abrams is being groomed as the next Spielberg grows more and more vivid – a fine craftsman with the master's sensibilities, but a new and revamped digital approach.
Yet, for all his formal savvy, Abrams is not a Spielberg. He is not a visionary. He is not an innovator. He's created highly addictive television series like “Lost,” but unlike Spielberg, he hasn't squeezed those juices of his predecessors into any sort of dramatic revitalization. “Super 8” taps into a certain cinematic spirit, yes, but as a film it is ultimately little more than a benign, polished collage. Aside from the actual filmmaking, there is nothing here – not a thing – that you haven't seen countless times before, and decades ago, no less. If you wanted to, you could watch this movie in a “count the tropes” sort of way, and run out of fingers within the first few scenes. Nostalgia isn't a strong enough subject to carry a film – it's more of an endearing crutch, and Abrams puts precious little effort into walking without it. We even see him gathering familiar bits from Spielberg's more recent filmography, such as the angry creature attacking folks in a stranded vehicle, and the very WWII-era visual of fearful masses lumped together in panic. But never do we see a story spark that seems to come solely from Abrams himself. He may be very good at what he does, but to say Abrams is the maker of the summer's most brilliant blockbuster is a gross misconception. He is but a collector with a camera, a pop archivist with a good memory...and enviable production value.