Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8

How rare is it these days when the credits roll in a theatre and you think to yourself/say "Now THAT'S a movie!"? Quite rare, in my opinion. When a film feels so complete an experience, so satisfying a conclusion, that's rare. Especially in today's summer blockbuster climate. In a sea of belaboured comic book adaptations, sequels, and pandering pop culture referencing family comedies, J.J. Abrams' third feature film stands out as something special. Having directed the fun action romp Mission: Impossible: III and the brilliant Star Trek reboot, Abrams is finally tackling his own original material. The results are stunning, if imperfect. But Super 8 comes as close to perfection as any great summer blockbuster in recent memory.

While much of the plot has been kept a mystery, I would posit that the alien creature feature mystery at the center of the plot is secondary to the real story, an emotionally rich and compelling tale of coming to terms with trauma and family tragedy.

We begin with a group of kids. The central one of the story, Joe has just lost his mother in an industrial accident at a factory. Four months later, it's summer, and school is out. Joe seems to be coping well with his loss by helping his best friend Charles make a Super 8 Camera movie for a student film festival. Things take a turn when Charles tells Joe that Alice, the prettiest girl in school, will be playing the wife in their film. The band of kids; Joe, Charles, Preston, Martin, and a pyro named Cary, sneak out in the dead of night to film at the local train station. Suddenly, a train approaches. "Production value!", Charles shouts with glee. The group hurries to film the scene as the train passes, giving an air of credibility to their film. However, as they are filming, a truck drives onto the tracks and heads right for the train, colliding head on in a crash that can only be described as Train-pocalypse. A brilliantly filmed action sequence that is one of the most thrilling and intense in recent memory, it ends with what we presume to be something escaping the cargo containers, and the beginnings of the mystery.

During everything leading up to and including this sequence, the film is practically flawless. Once the mystery begins the film gets a little ahead of itself, and the inherent imperfection of the film begins to show a bit. While the whole certainly outweighs the parts, the second act of the film has the alien mystery and the story of the kids slipping past each other a bit, never fully converging until the third act. But this is small potatoes compared to a largely brilliant film otherwise.

Many have taken issue with the way the film is stylistically similar to classic Spielberg films from the late 70s and 80s, but few have engaged in why the film is told this way in the first place. The reason those films work, and why Super 8 works, is because the themes and ideas in place are timeless and universal. Naturally, a film that tells a story like this will feel antiquated in today's glut of modern summer blockbusters. But what Super 8 has that those other films lack is real feeling. The characters are so well fleshed out that one actually cares about their story on a level much more intimate than just wanting to see the next cool CGI-laden set piece. The interaction between the kids is just so genuine and downright moving in the end. In that sense, of course the film is similar to those films Spielberg made, because they covered similar ground. But to me, the similarities are only skin deep. Aesthetically, the film is very reminiscent of Spielberg's sci-fi masterpiece, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If that film and the recent Korean monster movie gem, The Host, had a baby, it would be Super 8. But this is a J.J. Abrams film to the core, very much in line with his coined "mystery box" sensibilities and lens flare (a visual trademark of his, that, once again, was inspired by Close Encounters).

But as I said before, all is not perfect. If anything, I wish the alien mystery had been more fleshed out and converged with the kids' story more often. Instead, while it offers genuines thrills and a layer of mystique, it feels somewhat slighted, and during parts of the second act, a bit like an afterthought. Just as well, while the relationships between the kids are beautifully drawn and fully realized, the relationships between the Joe and Alice with their fathers aren't aren't given quite the same time and dedication. But as a film about friendship, compassion, and coming to terms with tragedy, the film truly and brilliantly soars. Few blockbusters evoke this kind of genuine emotion anymore. Only Christopher Nolan is making large scale films with that kind of truthful emotional core anymore. But he and Abrams are most definitely making two different kinds of films. While Nolan is looking at the darker side of the frailty of the human condition, Abrams strives for the light. Different styles but equally moving results.

Super 8 is a superlative achievement. It isn't perfect, but it is most definitely leaps and bounds beyond any blockbuster since last year's Inception, and likely to remain so until Abrams or Nolan make another film. From the brilliant and moving emotional center of the film, to the superb technical craft, to Michael Giacchino's INCREDIBLE score, Super 8 is the summer blockbuster event of the year for me. Undeniably cinematic, with heart to spare, it's the kind of film had I seen at a young age, I would be obsessed with. I can't wait to see it again.


Sales on Film said...

Did you seriously just use the phrase "fun action romp" to describe Mission Impossible: III?

Kevin K. said...

I did. I think M:I:III a blast. Well-constructed and executed set pieces and moves a long at a breezy pace, never taking itself too seriously, with a thrilling score by Michael Giacchino. Probably one of my favorite action films of the last decade.

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