My Ten Cents On: Super 8

There’s always one problem I’ve had with Science Fiction hitting the mainstream. Most Sci-Fi movies are always diluted, Sci-Fi Action, Sci-Fi Comedy, Sci-Fi Horror, etc. While these aren’t bad at all, the problem is that people forget that Science Fiction exists as its own genre. So when movies like Super 8 hit, I hear some people say: “Its boring for a Sci-fi Flick.” It feels like a kick in the gut every time I hear someone say that. Those of us who grew up post-Star Wars have grown to assume that Sci-Fi movies are fast paced and basically have the same formula are the rest of Hollywood.

Science Fiction appeals to  what I’d like to call, for lack of a better term, child-like curiosity. Imagine a kid walking into a science museum. Imagine that sense of wonderment he has and the explosion of questions that wash over him like a tidal wave once he sees all these new and remarkable things, things that he wouldn’t have noticed if it weren’t for the fantastical set-up. I’d like to think that Sci-Fi is along those lines.

Science Fiction is practically impossible to define, it could be almost anything. From aliens, to lava people, to flying cars to time travel, it encapsulates so many different things. I would postulate though that Science Fiction is best described as a medium to talk about topics that were taboo, or that no one ever thought to talk about, but in a setting that made it both acceptable and intriguing. It would present these very same arguments, but in a way that would remove it from all other context and highlight the root of the issue. You could talk about racism by representing minorities as aliens. You could discuss politics by referring to a futuristic world ruled by a robotic/ape empire. Science Fiction was a way to discuss these really serious issues in a way that wouldn’t offend people. This is the fundamental core of what Sci-Fi is about, presenting a sort of counter-culture that isn’t directly attacking the dominant one.

Super 8 is, in my opinion, a real Sci-Fi flick. It’s not an action movie, or a comedy, though it does have elements of both. But it really captures a lot of the essence of what Sci-Fi was that most people take for granted.

Super 8 is, to quote the Wikipedia entry, “the story of a group of children who are filming their own Super 8 movie when a train derails, releasing a dangerous presence into their town.”

Why is the synopsis so short, you may ask? Well that’s because one of the best things about this movie is its sense of…

+ Mystery

You have superb shots like these with a lone camera stretched helplessly across the screen is still filming on its side. It makes you wonder, "what does the camera see, what's on it"?

The movie was directed by J.J. Abrams, whom you may know as the guy that brought us Cloverfield and the new incarnation of Star Trek, as well as a little show called LOST. The one thing this guy is good at is creating an air of mystery. He is a master at sucking you in and making you ask questions and ponder over them as the show/movie goes on. He may not be that great at answering the questions, but it is his firm belief that that isn’t the point. The journey to seeking the answers is more important than the answers themselves.

J.J. Abrams did not disappoint with this movie. It kept me on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen next. It wasn’t fast paced, but it was always engaging. The problem I think that most people have is that they’re so overwhelmed with all the questions that they find the answers disappointing. I like to look at Sci-Fi movies and think of them the same way I think of life. Its not about the big ending, but about the wonder and beauty that surrounds you on the journey (that being said, its not like I don’t care about the ending, but I’ll get to that later). The mystery and the way its presented in this movie is the big draw, and Abrams knows that and executed it quite well.

+ Atmosphere

This looks like a house from the 60's, so much so that I can picture this as the predecessor to the Foreman house in That 70's Show, am I right?

In my X-Men: First Class review, I mentioned that one of the downsides of the movie was that it went in and out of the 60’s theme, and wasn’t so consistent in that aspect. Well, they should have taken a lesson from Super 8. This movie captured a sleepy 60’s town to perfection, and took me into a world that felt positively authentic.

The costumes, the hair, the cars, even the cast looked like they all fit in the 60’s. One thing I always loved about Spielberg is that he wouldn’t cut corners, he goes down to the smallest detail in order to make a movie look and feel authentic. Sure, he’s made a few movies that I don’t particularly care for, but I could never criticize him for his attention to detail.

The clothes, the diner, it all works, not a single thing here looks anachronistic.

With all the experience Spielberg has amassed over the years, he has developed this uncanny ability to see down to the smallest detail what would make a movie’s atmosphere. Its not just the hairstyles or the clothes and houses. Its the refrigerator magnets, its the posters on the wall, the pearl necklace, the guy in the far background sitting on the bench that we only see for a split-second. Its always been the small things that would make or break a movie’s setting. That’s why I always give high praises to a movie that does it right.

+ Acting

Spielberg has been blessed throughout his career with having a bunch of great child actors working with him, the most notable casts are from E.T. (which he directed and produced) and The Goonies (which he co-wrote), and I can add the ensemble of Super 8 to that list. This wasn’t just a rag-tag group of kids that they assembled, each one of them brought a different and distinct character to their performances.

These kids were fantastic!

I have to give special props to Riley Griffiths who plays Charlie, the incredibly intense film director friend of the main character, Joe Lamb, and Ryan Lee who plays Cary, the resident pre-teen pyromaniac. These guys especially made the movie so much fun to watch.

+ Nostalgia Factor

Right off the bat, the movie felt like something we haven’t seen in a long time, it felt like an old Spielberg flick. I felt like I was watching an updated version of E.T., as if this was an old movie idea Spielberg had on file just waiting for the technology to catch up. So I sat there in the theater and for the first half of the movie, I thought to myself: “This is probably what people who saw E.T. for the first time felt like.” I was so caught up with all the things I mentioned above that when this idea of the nostalgia factor popped into my head, it gave me an unexpected boost in entertainment while I was watching.

Okay, so about this specific plus,  I know its really subjective, since I’m a movie fan and all, but at the end of the day it was a good bonus, the cherry on the ice cream sundae, just an incredibly nice touch.

That being said this movie really got me hooked for the first half and it would have been the most epic thing I had ever seen if not for the…

– Plot

I know what I said about mystery and that still stands. My reference to the plot is like… badly unwrapping a Toblerone bar. You have the outer casing, and you want to see what’s inside. So instead of say, breaking it open along the grooves, you snap the whole bar in half, tearing away at the casing and exposing the now not-so-elegant chocolate crushed underneath. While I do believe that the ending doesn’t have to be as grand as say that of Gladiator or The Patriot, it should lead up to a great climax and a believable ending, and this area is a bit shaky for me.

The mystery was fantastic, it made the movie so deep and chalked full of excitement. My problem came with how the plot chose to deliver the answers. I won’t go too much into detail, but the plot wasn’t so well drawn out. Lets just say that there’s a point where any normal person would have figured out what was happening, but the main protagonists took a few more minutes of air time to actually figure it out. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the movie seemed to follow the development of the kids, so that when the kids figure out what’s going on, so much later than everyone else, only then does the music swells up and and the tone becomes very dramatic.

Its like this movie ran a great race, but got sloppy and lost it at the end. In short the climax is the film equivalent of this.

– The Dads

"So, whats your role in all this?" "Well, despite being the head of law enforcement, I'm just here to be look worried and eventually let my kid do everything. You?" "Yep. same here, minus the law part."

Okay just to clarify I think that both Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard played their roles as the fathers of a couple of the leads perfectly. In fact, especially for Kyle, I hope it leads to a lot more roles in the future (I loved the guy since his lead role in the TV show Early Edition, and it was great to see him outside of Friday Night Lights, where he also does a great job).

My problem is really in how they were written into the story. Kyle’s character especially, Jackson Lamb, takes up practically a third of the movie’s screen time, but apart from asking a few questions and looking worried, he doesn’t get to do anything.

When you have a cop who is suddenly thrust into a leadership role in a situation where the town has gone crazy, I believe that this situations gives you a wellspring full of options, story-wise. Its such a rich foundation that I was hoping to see something more interesting done.

Regarding the other dad, Ron Eldard, who plays Louis Dainard, the father of Elle Fanning’s character, Alice, had an interesting background of his own. He’s a drunk and the town loser and due to something that happened at the beginning of the film, has drawn the emnity of Jackson Lamb. He’s a deadbeat dad, and his daughter Alice is a tough independent woman, their relationship is the stuff of dramas, and it could have been so much richer for character development if their home life had been given more screen time.

My Cent’s Worth: 7/10

The Great Hollywood movies have to walk a delicate tightrope between the expected and unexpected. In the past, with the rise of the “Film School Generation”, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and the like merged conventional Hollywood formula with the then-virtually unknown use of European film techniques, and these created the blockbusters. Now that the wave has passed, it has become harder to Hollywood to find that balance, the balance that separates those great movies from the pretty good ones.

Super 8 almost had it, but it didn’t quite get there. So for now, I’ll leave it as one of the pretty good ones, still not a bad category to be in.

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Posted on July 5, 2011, in Film Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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