Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Super 8

Grade : A Year : 2011 Director : JJ Abrams Running Time : 1hr 52min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams have presented the best case for 35mm cinema, both in production and exhibition, with “Super 8.” When the film was announced last year, people immediately got excited about the prospect of Spielberg and modern multi-tasking prodigy Abrams collaborating on a film that would remind moviewatchers of Spielberg’s event classics of the ’70s and ’80s, “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” Few probably remember that before becoming a master of mystery with TV shows such as “Alias” and “Lost” and film projects such as “Cloverfield” and the “Star Trek” reboot of 2009, Abrams was a screenwriter of such films as “Regarding Henry” and “Forever Young.” I know, not the best credits to set the stage for Abrams later triumphs, but I have to admit– they’re guilty pleasures, and it’s that level of sentiment that returns to Abrams’s pen as a writer with “Super 8.”

At its core, “Super 8” is about a passionate group of friends who love movies, and want to make their own. Yes, there’s a sci-fi monster story in there as well, but long before the monster is shown on-screen in all its “Cloverfield”-esque glory, we’ve become less interested in whether the kids and their small Ohio town will survive and more hoping that Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends are able to finish their 8mm zombie movie, which has been thrown for a loop when an Air Force train crashes and the mysterious cargo it holds escapes, causing all manner of mayhem in the town. It’s great to watch Joe and co. at work on their own movies and know that it’s Spielberg and Abrams’s love of moviemaking coming through on screen. We already knew Spielberg was that kid with the camera who dressed up his friends in uniforms to make his own WWII films or sci-fi adventures, but given that the script comes from Abrams himself outs the gifted filmmaker as almost as big a geek as the Oscar-winner producing the film for him. You can tell watching the kids at work that Abrams and Spielberg understand exactly what goes on during such shoots: the improvisation (“Sorry, I’m gonna need you to play the soldier today”), the positive vibe about every take, the excitement that comes through simply telling a story, and having people who are just as in love with it as you are. It shouldn’t be so surprising that I get what that’s like as well, having worked on my own films over the years.

One of the things Abrams has become over the years is mysterious when it comes to his projects. Remember the shock of the first “Cloverfield” teaser? The secrecy of his “Star Trek,” and the uncertainty surround that film’s sequel. Hell, when it was first announced “Super 8” was theorized as being a prequel to “Cloverfield,” although to be fair, it kind of is when one thinks about it more closely. But while there is an unexpected twist in the film’s narrative, “Super 8” is pleasantly straight-forward in its priorities, which is to recreate the early Spielberg aesthetic without going overboard on sentiment, and on that front, Abrams and his creative team succeed brilliantly. In addition to the aforementioned Spielberg-directed classics, one also feels a tinge of “The Goonies” as Joe, the explosives loving Cary (Ryan Lee); the order shouting director Charles (Riley Griffiths), the young ingenue Alice (Elle Fanning), and the rest of the kids try and not only make sense of the mystery surrounding them but also find a way to incorporate it into their film. (At one point, Charles asks Joe if they can blow up his model train to match the accidental footage of the train wreck they filmed.) As with Spielberg’s ’80s classic, the friendship and adventure with the kids (all of whom are brought to life with great performances, another nod to Spielberg, who’s always gotten superb work from children) is at the heart of the film, and thrusts the narrative forward even when the pacing is a bit slow, as it is in the beginning.

There’s more than just that in Abrams’s love letter to Spielberg. There’s Michael Giacchino’s score, which cannily echoes John Williams’s work from that era of his collaboration with Spielberg. There’s the cinematography by Larry Fong, which captures that ’70s aesthetic effortlessly, and in all its “Spielberg stare” and lens flare glory. (As I hinted at earlier, this wouldn’t have been possible shooting in digital, and it gives the film a wonderful look.) And of course, what Spielbergian story from that era would be complete without a broken family or two, as Joe and his deputy father (Kyle Chandler) are estranged after the death of Joe’s mother in a factory accident six months prior to the main events in the film. The same can be said about the motif of mysterious military forces (personified by Noah Emmerich) who know more than they let on; tell me the cover up of this train wreck (brilliantly executed) isn’t straight out of “E.T.?”

I have a feeling this is a movie that’s going to stay with me a long time, and not just because of the two masters who brought it to the screen. That youthful exuberance in the way the kids go about their business. The excitement of the unexpected happening in suburban America (on that level, it trumps even Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” from 2005). And the old school sense of fun that permeates through every frame. Hopefully, Spielberg and Abrams aren’t done with bringing the memories of their formative years to audiences; I want to see what happens as these characters grow up and make movies for real.

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