Monday, June 13, 2011

JJ Abrams' (and Steven Spielberg's) SUPER 8

If nothing else, a memorable neck-turning poster of all time.
Super 8 impressed me until it stopped being so, and it gave me a little bit of awe early on and some chills with a couple of moments with a monster (let's call him/it that even as him/it is an alien), and the Spielberg influence (which may be tantamount to him directing over Abrams shoulder as much as being a producer, who knows) was fine... until it wasn't.  Super 8 has the makings of a charming and slightly sad coming of age story about a boy getting over the death of his mother by helping out his friend making a zombie movie, and then little by little following a BIG HOLY BLEEP train crash turns into something else.

Homage can be a powerful thing if done right or with some conviction, as Quentin Tarantino has showed us many times, and Abrams is on homage-overdrive here in Super 8... that and, you know, lens flare, which I'll get more into in a moment.  It's easy to point out many of the places Abrams has loving "thank you for making me a filmmaker" stuff: Jaws with the not-showing-the-monster style of suspense/action set-pieces (which work really well because of the not-showing which is a nice touch); the Goonies style of kids off on a crazy adventure they can't be totally sure about; Close Encounters and/or ET's way of showing suburban discontent edged in with the child-like awe of things from "out there" coming into our lives. 

This is all fine, except when Abrams starts to get his homage confused.  Take the monster, which is hard to go into much detail on except that, yes, it IS a monster-type of alien and not a cuddly wide-eyed kind like ET.  Now Abrams wants to have his cake and eat it too with this thing: it's a creature that's killed people, been making crazy attacks on property and cars and has a strange attachment physically with electronic parts and equipment like car engines and toaster ovens.

It might have been interesting if Abrams had done one of two things: introduce the alien in its whatever flesh sooner so we could get some sympathy for it (it's not a cute alien, but perhaps that would make it more interesting), OR just make it a bad-ass evil beast of an alien.  But because he wants it to be both - a horrifically AAAH! alien ala Cloverfield Monster AND the kind of 'awe' alien that asks for sympathy (mostly based on the premise of ONE SCIENTIST seen at one point on a video the kids watch from a top-secret film bin) - it gets confused and doesn't work.

This is really mostly a problem in the last act of the film, particularly the ending which is very much a 'really?  REALLY? you went there?' kind of ending.  Up until when the kids really go off on their adventure to find out what's going on with this alien and rescue another friend captured by the creature, it's a fun little movie that has some dramatic (if undercooked) elements of  fathers and their children and the gaping wounds left by past mistakes.  Of course this also feeds into what doesn't work about the last act/ending, how this is resolved between Joe's father and Elle Fanning's character Alice's father.  But the characters are fairly well-drawn, at least the two young leads, who also get some good acting from Fanning and the kid playing Joe, Joel Courtney.  Other supporting people works depending on how much you can take stereotype youngsters like the obnoxious fat friend (the director) or the goofball who loves explosives (Crazy Harry, scuse me, VFX man). 

And as a film geek the sub-plot of a monster movie being made in the midst of a monster movie was clever, up to a point (ironically, I thought Romero did it better a few years back with Diary of the Dead, though I'm in the minority on that).  But aside from the problems with how Abramsberg goes about the alien, there's the director's fetish that is so distracting that it takes away from what he is good at which is (mostly) story and character: lens flare.  Holy shit, what is up with lens flare and this guy?

Seriously, why is there lens flare here?  Someone explain it to me and I got a new Prius to give away.

In Star Trek it too was distracting, but at least it sometimes served a purpose being that they're on a space-ship and there's an operatic atmosphere that lends itself to those blue horizontal lights streaming across the screen.  Here it just didn't work, at all, and it got to the point where, and this is not hyperbole, the lens flare had it's own lens flare!  Sometimes it would pop up where you'd least expect... like a dark room.  Other times it would just sneak in like your obnoxious friend that wants you to try the new beer over by the bar.  I could go on about how much it hurts the movie, though it's the kind of hurt that's spread out little by little, not in any large chunks, but the effect is noticeable unless, you know, you just don't notice it I guess.

Super 8 has moments of an entertaining throwback to the kids movies of that Abrams grew up with and then by proxy the kids movies Spielberg grew up with.  As a hokey little matinee movie it doesn't do too bad in setting up its players, getting an overblown by wildly creative first turning point (as one might say in screenwriting) going with the train crash, and some of the main performances work fine.  There's even an end-credits "mini-movie" of what the kids finished product is that may be the best part of the whole film(?!)  But the flaws inherent in the script and in part the execution - I cannot stress how awful the ending is - make it less than really fantastic, which is what the expectations were going in (at least by the successfully manipulative trailer made it out to be).

Chandler's reaction to the end of the script

It's admirable as a personal project for the filmmaker, but... maybe so personal that it became a little muddled, like if the guy from the film/photo store who is no less a 1979 stoner than one might expect, had overseen the rewrites.  From a first time director it might be a big surprise.  From Abrams, it's kind of disappointing.

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