Anyone that knows me is well aware of my love affair with cinema. This give and take relationship can be easily traced back to the films that enchanted me as a child, and other than a few notable exceptions, most of these youthful experiences have in some way been tied to Steven Spielberg. His films from the 70s and 80s created a whole generation of movie-geeks whose passion for the art form has never subsided. There is little doubt that J.J. Abrams is among them.
In his newest creation Super 8 Abrams crafted a nostalgic fantasy-thriller that is an open love letter to the previous summer blockbusters of his youth. Mr. Spielberg produced this adventure with another extraterrestrial spin that elegantly envelopes the spirit of his early classics, through the eyes of his child protagonists at each pitch-perfect step. Spielberg does manage to give Abrams ample room to put his own definitive stamp on the story and style, though which mixes shades of E.T. in element and wonder, some of the darker witty humor found in Gremlins but within the impending dread of Jaws. All the while, it encapsulates the youthful camaraderie of The Sandlot or The Goonies. That the era chosen for the film (anywhere America, 1979) was the same as those with the similar fashion, ten speed bicycles, and small town Americana certainly helps drive home the nostalgic punch they were going for.
There is no doubt that this is indeed Abrams’ film though, and although he tips his hat to the set Producer that obviously inspired him, he brings his own unique sensibilities that also made him a household name to the table. The score for one is an interesting amalgam where Michael Giacchino (whose work in Star Trek is very much worth your time) utilizes a theme that picks up at just the right moments in a John Williams-esque style but is still subdued enough to allow the story to progress on its own. This to me is a perfect example of where the old, meets the new and shows Abrams’ influence and past ventures which percolate in interesting ways throughout the film.
A couple pertinent examples here include the television program Lost and the aforementioned Star Trek reboot. There Abrams perfectly balanced grand spectacle and mystery with raw emotion and small character arcs that really separate the action from the heart when needed. And he continues to do so very effectively here.
It doesn’t hurt that he also gets what will possibly go down as one of the best ensemble child casts since Stand by Me. Not to take away from the rest of the acting talent, including an effective Kyle Chandler from TV’s Friday Night Lights, but quite simply, the kids in this film are terrific; most of them are actually newcomers but they manage to display rich emotion and natural humor that is completely believable. They talk how my friends and I did as kids and it all flows so effortlessly as they compete for attention, constantly interrupting one another in that annoying way only a group of real childhood friends would.
The dialogue moves at a frenetic pace that is often quite funny, but when it’s time for the tone to change they do so without any jarring consequences. This is where the performances really begin to shine. With an uncanny nod to some Elliot style whims (played by the underrated Henry Thomas) from E.T. we see a rising star in Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb) who’s on screen dynamic with the mature beyond her years Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard) brings the story to its knees in emotion filled fashion. There is real charm here watching this relationship develop that tugs at even the most hardened of heart strings. And through the eyes of these two stars to be, Abrams effectively captures the genuine wonder and imagination of the unknown as well as the childlike innocence and compassion it can take to understand it all within the confines of their own school-yard style crush. Where these dynamic young actors go from here will no doubt be an interesting ride to watch.
“I’m just trying my best to save you.”
If the film has an artistic flaw per se, it’s that the extraterrestrial story (which is reminiscent of the Abrams produced Cloverfield, showing at the Art Theater one last time Thursday evening) is fairly standard. I would argue however, like the much maligned and not quite as effective Signs, this summer movie is really more-so a rewarding character drama, masquerading as an alien mystery thriller, and as such, it shines even more. I won’t deny that at times there are points when the multiple story threads seem hurried, particularly in a clunky scene that goes from climactic confession to terribly threatening without much finesse, but this is nitpicking more than anything else. It is truly touching, it’s funny (the credits alone are worth admission), it’s thrilling, it has characters you’ll care about, and it’s dramatically satisfying. Super 8 succeeds and will no doubt leave a new generation of young film goers with the right kind of example of how Big Hollywood films really could be.
So does Super 8 break any real new ground here? No. But that’s also not the point. The Summer Blockbuster has evolved into a CGI spectacle with a Michael Bay regurgitated tagline. Kids today need to know that there is more to this wonderful medium than explosions or a scantily clad Megan Fox. There is heart within the action and if you want to find it this summer, this is your vehicle. All in all, it reminded me of that grade school crush. It reminded me of my family and friends. It reminded me of my childhood and my dream to be a movie maker myself. But most of all, it reminded me of why I even go to the movies to begin with. They say that “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”, well, this summer… they have.
Art Theater Wish List: Tree of Life (June 24th), Submarine, Beginners
3 to See : Super 8, Everything Must Go, Bridesmaids
3 to Avoid: Hangover 2, Pirates whatever number this is, The Art of getting By
If you still aren’t convinced here is a 6 minute clip that should help. Enjoy: