Saturday, June 11, 2011
Poorly Developed Super 8
What do you get when you combine the production input of Steven Spielberg with the writing and directing of J.J. Abrams? You get overblown silliness and excessive lens flares.
I had hoped for more. I knew I was going into a film whose story seemed to draw from Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial as well as films like Independence Day and Alien, but I told myself that I wouldn’t mind the film’s derivative nature if it offered some taut, scary, thrilling, even touching, summer entertainment. What I saw was a big disappointment.
The film’s basic premise was intriguing: 1970s kids making a zombie movie with an 8mm camera witness a train wreck and discover the presence of an alien trying to assemble his space ship and get back home. Two scenes in particular, during which the kids film scenes from their movie, constitute the best moments in this film. In one scene, director Charles (Riley Griffiths), lead actor Martin (Gabriel Basso), bit player Preston (Zach Mills), pyrotechnics expert Cary (Ryan Lee), and make up artist Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) watch as actress Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) rehearses an emotional speech with very touching results. Here, the shy Joe Lamb, who has recently lost his mother in a tragic steel mill accident, starts to fall in love with Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), whose wastrel, hard-drinking father feels responsible for the death of Joe’s mother. In another scene, the most striking visually (image above), the kids shoot a scene from their movie on a hill overlooking the train wreckage. Both scenes evoke the wonder of youthful imagination, the magic of filmmaking, and the bittersweet poignancy of young love. Along with these two scenes, the performances of Courtney and Fanning are the best the film has to offer.
Courtney and Fanning are full of sincerity and believability. They are worth watching, but they can’t save a film that starts with silliness in its major set piece: the train wreck. Rendered in poor CGI, a train racing from some sort of Area 51 hits a truck and sends ALL its cars flying through the air, exploding, plastering a huge area with twisted cars and chunks of wreckage that cover every space except for where the kids happen to be. Similarly, the Alien, looking like a midget-sized Cloverfield monster, moves fast, makes a lot of noise, but never generates a single second of drama or suspense. In addition, the Alien, whose most interesting characteristic is that it can carve tunnels underground like a hyperactive Horta on steroids, has no presence whatsoever. Most often a blur, it is flat and faded in the one scene in which it holds still in a face off with Joe.
Beyond the two scenes I have praised above, the rest of the film plays like a Mad movie parody: all caricature and cartoonish hyperbole: Cary's braces; the girl in curlers; Charles's slovenly family; an inexplicable scene in which tanks blow each other up across the panorama of the whole town of Lillian, Ohio. Ron Eldard, whose performances are often dreadful, is dreadful as Alice's drunken, blubbery, whining, long-haired father. I winced when Alice hugs him. As Joe's father, Kyle Chandler is flat and unconvincing, even in his big dramatic moment when he supposedly embraces his son with full acceptance (another hug that made me wince).
Oh, the lens flares. In the scene in which Alice rehearses her speech before the train arrives, they are bright blue bars stretching across the entire frame, telling us, I guess, that this is a touching, idyllic moment. But we don't need a sign. We know the moment is touching because it works. Similarly, throughout the rest of the film, we don't need all that motion, noise, and silliness. We need good writing, good acting, good direction. We need young Joe Lamb's uncorrupted imagination.