(2011) director J.J. Abrams
viewed: 06/12/2011 at Century Downtown Plaza 7, Sacramento, CA
Raved about by several critics as “the best summer movie in many years”, Super 8 is something that most of the summer action movies are not: an original story. Not an adaptation of pre-existing, novel, comic book, re-make, re-boot, or sequel. The novelty of being novel.
Of course, its originality is not entirely without heaping mountains of homage. Calling forth the spirit of other summer films starring a group of kids on an adventure, most significantly E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Little wonder that Steven Spielberg assisted in producing this film by J.J. Abrams. The film yearns quite specifically for the early teen years set in 1979, a gaggle of film-making wannabes, shooting a zombie film on the super 8 film stock/format, and dealing with love, life, and death in a small town in Anywheresville, USA (Ohio).
As much film-going as I do with the kids, they really aren’t uber-aware of all the movie hype and stuff that is out there, promoted all over television, bus shelters, and billboards all over everywhere. And though I read a relatively inordinate amount of “ink” on the subject of movies coming and going all over, they really hadn’t a single clue about this film. I was a little concerned about taking Clara, who is pretty brave and has sat through a number of PG-13 movies, but the word on the street was that this was the summer’s best flick and that there were some spoilers to watch out for, so I hustled us out to see it, hoping for the best.
Abrams has proved himself an able director in my mind with his successful re-boot of the sci-fi series, Star Trek (2009), among many other producing and writing and directing credits to his credit. Super 8 had some very cagey marketing, with trailers that indicated all kinds of mystery dating back over a year ago. The same sort of edgy marketing that promoted the Abrams-produced Cloverfield (2007), which was a serious bust in my opinion. I was wondering what to expect.
The story of Super 8 is of a gang of semi-nerdy young middle school friends, who are working to make a zombie film. They land the attractive blond girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), to give some emotional hook to their movie (and some heart-palpitating swooning puppy love). While filming late at night, at a railroad station with a stolen car, they wind up capturing a ridiculous monstrous train wreck, caused deliberately by their strange science teacher. While they all come away more or less unscathed, they don’t realize that they’ve captured something very secret on their film, and meanwhile, a huge group of government goons start infiltrating the small town, a modern trope that has become a near cliche since the days of The X-Files.
I won’t ruin the surprise for you, if you have no idea what it’s all about. For me, the surprise was how little of a surprise there is really. I could have virtually written it all out at a guess and gotten most of the general story-line figured out. And that’s part of where the “originality” emphasis is a little suspect in regards to the film’s qualities. It is an original story, but it’s not the most original of stories by any means.
What is very creditable is the casting of the kids in the film. Fanning is a picture of that age in which girls start to change from children into proto-adults, with the charms and beauty that cause boys to fall head-over-heels, while still being on the cusp of leaving childhood. It’s a “coming of age” film, in that sense, to a degree. But the whole gang of kids is wonderfully cast and deftly written, giving them real character and personality. Though again, I got a real feel of Freaks and Geeks from them a bit too.
All told, I really did enjoy it, perhaps a little too hyper aware of homage and the referential nature of the film. It’s a film about the joy and pleasure of film-making as well. The kids both liked it, but what was most interesting and gratifying to me was that their biggest take-away was not the main story of the film, but rather the “film within the film”, the corny-comic zombie flick that the kids make. Felix wound up casting Clara as a zombie in a planned production of “Zombie Invasion” (who knows how far it will go), and his favorite part of the film was the kids’ film, which is shown in clips over the credits.
Best summer film in many years? Best simply because it’s an original story, not some re-hash? I don’t know. I am all for original stories, original ideas, even if they are very influenced by classics or semi-classics. I did like it quite well, and if anything, from what I can tell, casting is the film’s biggest coup, and quite often films with casts like this wind up developing through the years. We shall see.