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.


The Film Doctor said...

I like your crack about "the Alien, looking like a midget-sized Cloverfield monster," as it "moves fast, makes a lot of noise, but never generates a single second of drama or suspense." But I respectfully think that you were a bit harsh on the movie. I found much of it very entertaining, except for the weird gaps in the narrative later on. I got a sense that Abrams was so confident about getting our attention through Joe's and Alice's dramas that he didn't bother to flesh out the third act. Much the same happened with Spielberg's War of the Worlds, with Dakota playing Elle's role. In both cases, I think we were supposed to take all of the b-movie thriller conventions lightly with some pleasure in their cheesy thrills.

So, I guess I was more willing to forgive the film for its later problems because of the skillfulness of the set up and Abrams' sheer pleasure in evoking a youthful passion for filmmaking. Both X-Men: First Class and Super 8 hold up way better than such bilge as The Hangover Part II. The question is how anyone can face Green Lantern on a full stomach.

Sam Juliano said...

Ah Hokahey, while I commend you for peeling away the gauze and examining this film from all the pertinent angles, I have presided over this case and has decided to overule the prosecutor and dismiss the charges against the defendents J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. Their collaboration has produced a film with appealing characters, a monster in the tradition of ET and a rather delightfully abstract variation on linear narrative that allows for a closer scrutiny of character.

Like Film Doctor, I felt this was a very entertaining piece, and would move to exonerate teh filmmakers for the narrative gaps, which never strained the bond between audience and character. There's a real sense of exhilaration in this film, which in this summer of multiplex sequels and mind frying entertainments, is no small achievement.

Again, wonderful review my friend.

Richard Bellamy said...

"Both X-Men: First Class and Super 8 hold up way better than such bilge as The Hangover Part II. The question is how anyone can face Green Lantern on a full stomach." I'm willing to agree with you there, FilmDr, and I haven't even seen The Hangover II; saw The Hangover and hardly laughed.

As for Super 8, I think we enjoyed the same elements. I forgot to mention in my review that I also enjoyed the scene in which Alice practices acting like a zombie. Well done.

But all of that was wrapped up in a poorly executed story about Cloverpatch trying to get his ship together. I was not willing to forgive - although I'm like you - I'm willing to forgive lapses and weaknesses when the central core of the movie captivates me. I simply was not captivated. Given the strength of the Joe and Alice characters, I needed just a little bit more out of the rest of the story.

Richard Bellamy said...

Sam, we'll just have to disagree on this one, but thanks, as always, for your feedback. I always appreciate your comments.

I definitely see that the film is drawing on (copying) E.T. but it definitely doesn't create an alien we get to know and care for in the same way. To the credit of Super 8, I enjoyed the kids in this one much more than those in E.T.. But I definitely did not feel this film's "exhilaration" and I really feel that this movie is poorly made.