Wednesday, June 8, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: SUPER 8 (some spoilers)

Directed by J.J. Abrams (Bad Robot Productions/Amblin Entertainment Paramount)

In sleepy Lillian Ohio in 1979, the town is upended by mysterious events that send all of its inhabitants on a collision course with destiny and perhaps the end of the world as they know it. One little boy holds the key and knows too much.

The movie opens with the wake for Elizabeth Lamb, killed in a terrible accident at the local steel mill where most of the town is employed. Left behind to pick up the pieces are the Sheriff’s deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) and his monster movie obsessed early-teen son Joe. Joe (Joel Courtney) and his best friends Charles, Carey, Preston and Martin spend all their time working on Charles’s zombie horror movie with a Super 8 camera. They hope to enter it into a prestigious teen film contest and it is a campy and fun effort by the teens. Normally shy, Joe is very talented at horror makeup and model making. The kids sneak out at night to film scenes unbeknownst to their parents. One night while out filming a pivotal scene with recently recruited Alice Dainard (Ellie Fanning, younger sister of Dakota), the kids accidentally witness a spectacular crash of an Air Force branded train. The train was carrying alien materials and “something else” across the country from a decommissioned building in the famed Area 51 secret base, in Roswell New Mexico. Joe sees that “something else” and it's living and monstrous in one of the crashed train cars escaped, but can't make out what it is. Barely surviving the falling and exploding wreckage with their lives, the kids discover that their crotchety science teacher in fact drove his truck into the path of the train to derail it on purpose. Barely alive, “old man” Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman) tells them to speak nothing of what they saw or the Air Force will kill them all. The teacher brandishes a gun and the kids drive away just as the Air Force arrive armed to the teeth to survey the scene.
Something survived the crash....
This opening, one of the best I have seen in years, is expertly crafted by J.J. Abrams (STAR TREK/CLOVERFIELD/MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III & IV/televisions LOST, FRINGE and ALIAS) who does the slow paced, deliberate exposition like few modern story tellers. He does a great job of using the camera to imply visuals and creates suspense the good old fashion way: with a mix of giving you something and taking it away or showing the reveal shot. In the classic "bubble" style of alien and monster movies of yesteryear, Abrams does some of his best directorial work ever. He is practically Hitchcockian or Rod Serling-esque in his laborious effort to tease, scare and thrill. Great pacing, lighting and camera work also highlight the film. The period piece elements are tremendous from authentic language, fabulous musical cues (BLONDIE, THE KNACK, LIONEL RITCHIE, ELO oh my!), wardrobe, production design and awesome props (a real Sony Walkman!).

J.J. Abrams- great job!
As for the story, mysterious things happen in the town like all of the dogs running away at once, disappearances and murder of towns people, electrical disturbances and blackouts, destruction of property and theft. You feel the walls close in on you in the audience as the entire population of 1200 denizens of Lillian are thrown in to a frenzy. Now Sheriff Lamb, played well by Chandler carries the load with the sheriff disappeared. As the situation grows more dim and the town is terrorized by something with unstoppable force, the military takes over and creates a bluff to evacuate the town to the Air Force base and begins a plan to engage the enemy full force.  There are shades of modern conspiracy ideas everywhere here as the distrust builds among everyone, forcing unlikely alliances. The children, especially Courtney and 
Fanning give great performances, as the gang of kids in a cross between STAND BY ME, THE GOONIES and a SCOOBY DOO mystery try to solve the case and discover the nature of what was in the train. Normally child actors leave me cold, but these kids had the gravity and maturity for the parts and do a yeoman job throughout. You feel their wonder, excitement, depression, anxiety and fear which are emotions all kids feel, but hard to convey at times for child actors. 

Ellie Fanning and Joel Courtney. 

Other notable performances are Noah Emmerich as the ruthless Air Force Colonel Nelic and Ron Eldard as Alice's hapless and drunken dad Louis. For those who remember CLOVERFIELD a bit too well the alien is done really well in my opinion and not cheesy (okay, a tiny bit). The ending of the movie hearkens back to the simpler first films of the genre like the original THE DAY THAT EARTH STOOD STILL and even a later gem like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Of course that last reference is fitting (as is a slight nod to E.T.) with Steven Spielberg in the producer/co-writer chair. While I fear the unsophisticated modern movie goer may miss some of the visual and verbal cues due to impatience, the smart sci-fi fan will eat this movie up.

Super 8 has many nods to classic sci-fi pathos.


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