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Super 8 Mostly Succeeds; Leaves A Little Funky Aftertaste

Super 8
Written and directed by J.J. Abrams
Paramount, 2011

Sigh.  I so wanted to fall in love with Super 8.  It almost had me completely.  It’s like dating a girl who is super hot and likes to watch football and tells you to go drink and smoke with your friends; she doesn’t need you to be around 24/7.  But then enter some sort of Seinfeld-ian super hot girl flaw: man-hands, Elmer Fudd laugh, Newman dated her and found her unacceptable…you know how Seinfeld went.  Girls were always perfect except for that one ridiculous flaw that he couldn’t overlook.  And that’s where I find myself with Super 8 the morning after.

J.J. Abrams, creator of shows like Alias and Lost, director of Mission: Impossible 3 and the much-loved reboot of Star Trek, is obviously looking to recreate the Spielbergian cinema magic of the late 70’s and early 80’s, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind being the obvious target.  And here, he teams with producer Steven Spielberg in the ultimate, “I am trying to capture everything that was Spielberg” marketing campaign.  When I watch Close Encounters today, I find it amazing that spectacle filmmaking was so character-driven and slowly built to action, filled with an actual sense of wonder.  At the film’s end, I really feel like I’m on that mountain, seeing something very few people are privy to see, and when I see it, my senses are overwhelmed trying to take it all in.  Spielberg’s movies back in the day were a kid’s dream.  To this day, Spielberg remains my favorite director of all time on the basis of four movies: Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. Spielberg of course has done many, many other films worth mentioning, but these four movies will always be held in the highest esteem.

So Super 8 is set in 1979 in the age where Jaws, Close Encounters, and the first Star Wars had all made their thunderous impact on cinema and changed everything as we know it.  And we are seeing the repercussions of that today.  If we study what made those movies so good, and we examine the bastard children they spawned later on, we realize that, like many things, studios and aspiring filmmakers became selective about what they thought they liked from those earlier movies.  Characters began to retreat to wild action and special effects.  It’s gotten so bad that the only movies that come close to those are animated by Pixar.  Yeah, the closest to actual human beings in spectacle filmmaking we get these days…are cartoons.

In Super 8, a group of adolescent friends try to make a zombie movie using a Super 8 camera, the kind that used 8 mm film and had to be developed at a Kodak center and took days or weeks to get back.  Our main character is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), who has just lost his mom in a factory accident, and his deputy sheriff dad Jackson (Friday Night Lights‘ great Kyle Chandler) is now faced with the prospect of raising him on his own, something he definitely doesn’t seem prepared for.  Joe’s best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the director of the zombie flick, and their friends Cary (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach Mills), and Martin (Gabriel Basso) are all actors playing humorously adult roles.  Charles has just changed the script to include a wife character, played by Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning, the younger of the talented Fanning sisters).

During the filming of one scene at a train depot, the kids bear witness to a spectacular train derailment by a man driving a truck head-on into the train.  That man is the kids’ well-known biology teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), who tells them the military is coming and will likely kill them for being here.  So the kids get the hell out of there and swear themselves to secrecy.  Still, they shoot the movie, and in the name of free “production value,” shoot it where they can get shots of the derailed train and military personnel in the background.  Meanwhile, something has escaped from that train.  That something is going all over town looking for white Rubik’s cube type things, and some people are beginning to disappear.

Jackson finds himself as the top police authority, having to juggle this newfound responsibility with his other newfound responsibility in being a single dad.  He doesn’t want Joe hanging around Alice, because her drunk father Louis (Ron Eldard) is indirectly responsible for his wife’s death.  We start learning more about the something that is wandering around town, and when Charles gets his film developed from the train shoot, he finds out he inadvertently captured an image of something not of this world.

It’s the third act of this film that began erasing what had been a great throwback to old Spielberg in the first two acts.  Mainly, it’s this creature and all of its digital make-up.  Its presence here is anachronistic given the “throwback” nature of how the film builds in suspense and character development.  He’s the same damn digital baddie we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in every sci-fi movie of the last ten years.  I’m not sure Abrams could have “gone puppet” here, either…this is the risk you take when you make a throwback movie, but likely can’t go back to the antiquated creature development techniques.  Because let’s face it, as beloved as those old Jim Henson workshop creatures are, many of them were kind of cheesy.  Many of them were cool, though, even back in the day.  Jabba the Hutt (constructed by Lucas’ ILM and puppeteered by Henson’s guys)  took three people to work, took months to make, and cost a half million dollars, but at least he doesn’t look like the awful digital creation George Lucas made for him in the Special Editions of Star Wars.  I think Abrams and Spielberg have more than enough resources to have made a physical presence, something that looks real, something that has actual character.

The sheer work it takes to get a puppet to be awesome is the reason why digital has taken over.  Thus we have been thrust into a lazy age of creature development because everything can be done by some nerds on a computer instead of the hardworking team that it took to make Jabba the Hutt laugh, wag his tail, blink his eyes, etc.  The puppet seems real because it is real.  The digital effect is almost always going to be a digital effect: the closest to being real was Gollum and he still has that digital sheen that takes away from the overall effect.  I’m sure the nerds have a tough job and I’m not belittling them, I’m just belittling what we’re supposed to accept as reality.

So it’s hard to justify, after all that, that I would recommend seeing this movie, right?  Because this is a good movie.  It’s certainly better than most summer movies.  It just let me down after all the goodwill it had nurtured for over an hour.  The finale just seemed too pat for me, and it didn’t earn its ending.  Remember E.T. and how getting home became the movie’s ultimate goal?  We had grown to love E.T.’s character, his relationship with Elliott, and the brutal struggle with life and death, and we all rooted for E.T. to get the hell off of Earth, to get home safe, forgetting too late…we’d miss the guy when he left.  That was brilliant filmmaking.  I think the lack of likewise character development ultimately is what left me cold here, after doing the job with the human characters.

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