Saturday 29 February 2020

Movie Review: Super 8 (2011)

A science fiction thriller, Super 8 borrows freely from the legacy of producer Steven Spielberg to create an engaging monster mystery with plenty of character texture.

It's 1979 in the small town of Lillian, Ohio. Middle schooler Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) loses his mom Elizabeth to a workplace accident, straining his relationship with his father Jack (Kyle Chandler), the sheriff's deputy. Four months later, Joe is helping best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) film a Super 8 zombie noir thriller for a school competition. They recruit the aloof Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to be a member of the acting team.

Joe has a crush on Alice, although her father Louie (Ron Eldard) has a dark history related to Elizabeth's death. While out filming at midnight near the rail tracks, the students witness a massive train derailment caused by a pick-up truck driven by science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman). A monster is unleashed from the train, and soon US Air Force types under the command of Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) are crawling all over the landscape, while the angry monster unleashes destructive mayhem.

Super 8 draws direct inspiration from Spielberg's alien and monster classics including E.T., Close Encounters Of The Third KindJaws and Jurassic Park. Common Spielbergian themes of coming-of-age in contexts of parental loss, incompetent authority figures, misunderstood beings, and peer friendships are prominent. Director and writer J.J. Abrams pays frequent but respectful tribute to his producer, but nevertheless crafts his own version of kids solving a mystery in an adult world gone mad, while a misplaced monster suffers mistreatment.

The carnage and special effects in the train crash scene are overdone to childish levels, and the snippet views of the monster are distractingly over-edited and continue too deep into the movie. But otherwise Abrams constructs a satisfying story with plenty of human interest. The dynamics between the kids alternate between spiky and sweet, but always anchor the film, while the two dads, both fighting against the same demon from the past, add to the spice. 

The small town feel and late 1970s vibe provide the film with a warm glow of nostalgia for the Spielberg generation. And while the Super 8 film-within-a-film is mainly deployed for comic effect, the drama of an evasive monster on the loose with its own emotions of fear and longing for home gradually builds intensity. 

Late in the film the characters start to understand and interact with the alien, and here Abrams relies on the familiarity of his core themes to take advantage of narrative shortcuts and charges at full speed towards a climax that is at once rushed, familiar and over-reliant on special effects. Nighttime falls, music soars, lights flash, characters stare in awe, and one final poignant moment punctuates a finale that follows every detail of Spielberg's template. When the formula is tried and tested, studious application is a simple path to success.

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