Friday, 19 August 2011

Film Review: Super 8

They don't make them like they used to. Lost seems to be the genuine warmth and vim present in movies from a bygone era, replaced with the perceived need for audacious action sequences and to blow up everything in sight. Spielberg was, and arguably still is the master of such heartfelt storytelling which the whole family can gather around. And so it is understandable that there was a palpable excitement emanating from a generation brought up on goodies such as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and ET when it became apparent Spielberg was producing JJ Abrams homage and first feature as writer and director in the form of Super 8.

Set in 1979 (reference to Three Mile Island), Charles (Griffiths) and Joe (Courtney) are two best buds hoping their homemade zombie movie will win an upcoming film festival. Joined by pyromaniac Cary (Lee), brains Preston (Mills), lanky Martin (Basso), and new addition Alice (Fanning), the Goonies-esque group sneak out one night to capture a pivotal scene only to witness a spectacular train crash. Stumbling through the debris they find their science teacher who warns them not to speak of the incident. It soon becomes apparent that something escaped from the wreck when people, dogs and electrical appliances begin to disappear.

Super 8's opening is spellbinding. It starts by settling down with that recreated Spielberg-esque suburban feel from ET and Close Encounters; charming and melancholic, even if you're not old enough to have experienced 1979 for yourself. This all builds to a crescendo where an Air Force train crashes and 'something' is released into the endearing little town of Lillian, Ohio. The problem with Super 8 however is that it fails to capitalise on its fantastic opening. It doesn't quite know where to go next, fluffing personal relationships and making a bit of a mess with the lurking creature stalking the town. Indeed, after its bravura opening it struggles to conjure up anything as suitably epic or urgent to follow through with. From this point on, Super 8 needlessly gives itself a choice; whether to follow the interpersonal relationships which would give the movie its heart, or to pursue the sci-fi action that modern audiences allegedly crave. What Super 8 doesn't seem to realise is that it doesn't necessarily have to be either or, but it insists on it, creating for no apparent reason two separate movies. By doing so, it manages to bungle both.

With regards to the human story for example, there is potential for an interesting love triangle between Charles, Joe and Alice, but this is skirted over almost as soon as Charles' feelings are revealed. Likewise, there is a palpable animosity between Joe and Alice's fathers, but it is a conflict which is unsatisfactorily explained or resolved. The sci-fi element is equally muddled. There is a discernible lack of clarity surrounding the creature; described as 'ultra intelligent', yet portrayed as a maniacal man-eating beast that looks like something out of Gears of War; its behaviour explained away as having been 'wronged' by humans, yet its activities suggesting something almost evil. Such is the confusion surrounding the creature that you will neither fear nor feel empathy for it. If you compare it with the critter from ET, the one in Super 8 displays none of the same charm and there is nothing that the kids discover about it which the authorities don't already know, making them mere observers to events around them. It eats people in a vain attempt to create a sense of fear, but it just ends up feeling cheesy. Furthermore, the train crash strews Rubik's cube-like objects all over the place which the military places great significance on gathering. Yet while there is a clear air of importance empahsised upon these objects, the grand reveal as to their purpose lacks any satisfying punch. Indeed, this alien may as well be from planet MacGuffin.

Regardless, the kids are fantastic. The risk with children in movies is always that they won't be able to act or that the film feels like tacky synthetic, but there's scarcely any of that here in what is a sublimely assembled group. Their interaction and dynamics are wholly believable in what is essentially a coming of age tale. This is one of the defining moments in their lives, the twilight of their innocence and the descent into adulthood. It is an age we can all relate to and view with some nostalgia. Fanning in particular shows so much poise for her age while Courtney's first professional gig is something to be commended. Drawn together by a sense of loneliness, Alice, two-years older than the others and just crossed over to puberty, is forced to endure her depressed, alcoholic father. Joe pines for his recently deceased mother, clutching to a locket in a symbol of his grief while yearning for a sympathetic ear as his Father, the deputy sheriff, copes by burying himself in his work. Their inchoate romance blossoms as both turn in remarkable performances given their lack of experience.

Those who have watched Lost will recognise many of Abrams' own hallmarks, predominantly the device of keeping secrets. Trademark Abrams weirdness comes in spades; dogs inexplicably going missing, an unseen malevolent monster in the bushes picking off locals that may as well be smoke, and a story wrapped in secrets until the third act. The drip feed of information before a big reveal is part and parcel of the Abrams experience, but this device is no good unless you're building up to something. Indeed, Abrams himself says that "It becomes foreplay without the main event, and no one wants that". However, is that 'something' worth it? By the third act Super 8 turns into a full blown science fiction affair which unfortunately washes away much of the painstaking charm that so much effort went into creating during the first act. When it's finally revealed that there's an alien in town bent on taking people and electrical goods, the children's ensorcelling tale of filming a zombie epic becomes second fiddle.

Indeed, the troubles with Super 8 are embodied in the two different styles of Spielberg and Abrams. While on the one hand this is a love letter to Spielberg and ET, Abrams' paw prints are still all over this. It's as if Spielberg has given Abrams his keys to the car to take a girl to the high school prom. Super 8 struggles to define itself, seeking to both respect its father yet yearning to impart its own brand of rebellious youth on the world. Ultimately Abrams has his own distinctive style as does Spielberg, and it is not entirely convincing whether the two can co-exist as a certain dissonance becomes apparent. Abrams' stuff is often electrifying, full of energy (Mission Impossible 3, Star Trek, Cloverfield) where Spielberg is all the more a wholesome family experience. While Abrams is obviously a massive fan of Spielberg and does his best to pay homage to the man that gave him his first job at 15, his attempts to mimic Spielberg dilutes the effectiveness of his own style, and ultimately fails to truly replicate the aura surrounding Spielberg's films. It never fully relinquishes the sci-fi to the human emotional story in the way ET did. Abram's attempt to capture the old fashioned pluck at emotional chords doesn't set so well with the modern need to blow something up every five-minutes.

If you were to put ET, Cloverfield and Super 8 on a linear scale, this would rest somewhere in the middle. Super 8 is gentler in tone than Cloverfield, but it is nowhere near as sweet as ET. And this is where Super 8 suffers most; sitting on the fence by trying to please both family movie goers and nostalgia enthusiasts as well as sci-fi action junkies. Indeed, there's two films at work here where the human and sci-fi stories slip past each other instead of melding into one satisfying and coherent singularity. And yet, Super 8 maintains its conjuration, enamoured by its nostalgic setting and infectious exuberance. Like everything Abrams does, it is both likeable and enthralling. While there are hints of Spielberg's pizazz, unfortunately half the heart seems missing. There's nothing inherently wrong with Super 8 and while it may never actually hit the mark, the biggest disappointment has to be that given the two accomplished names involved one might have expected more.