jason stives reviews the hotly anticipated J.J. Abrams film …
There is a song by Brit Pop icons Oasis called “Cigarettes And Alcohol,” which upon listening greatly resembles T. Rex’s 1972 classic “Get It On (Bang A Gong).” Does that make it an unoriginal song? Not at all, because it’s just as enjoyable even with the familiar hook attached to it. With Super 8, the latest directive outing by creative giant J.J. Abrams, we get a movie that is almost too familiar at times, but it’s possibly one of the most original and enjoyable science-fiction films of recent memory.
Set in the appropriate backdrop of a blue collar steel town in 1979 Ohio, Super 8 tells two particular stories under one banner. The first is the story between that of Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) and his son Joe (newcomer Joel Courtney, who are torn apart from their father and son connection because of the recent death of Joe’s mother. Jackson is a sheriff in a small town called Lillian, who finds no time to understand his son’s pension for zombie make up and creating movies on his friend’s Super 8 camera. The second is that of a train accident carrying precious cargo from the U.S. Air force, and the strange mystery surrounding its alien content that ultimately escapes into the small town of Lillian. Both plots meet when Joe and his friends are filming their movie at a train station, the very moment the military freight train derails from a truck crashing into it.
As a science-fiction thriller, the visual integrity that Abrams and his production crew put into many of the military sequences is breathtaking, almost claustrophobic and frightening especially when the films young characters are smack dab in the middle of the action. Although everyone has no doubt seen the train crash from the trailer, its actual execution in the film is a lot more effective with the crash acting in a chain reaction like scenario and one of the loudest series of explosions on film. I have only seen one spectacular train crash on film in my life that of the two train collision in the 1952 film The Greatest Show On Earth, and this crash quickly deflates that crash’s impact thanks to some amazing CGI work from ILM, although the kids in the film would have gladly used a model train for cheaper effect.
While the film is never short of adult characters, especially on the military in, this film is all about the kids at the center of this military cover up and family oriented drama. Joel Courtney is a self-aware adolescent as Joe Lamb, and at best he is beside himself with his grief as well as his love of film and his crush Alice, the daughter of the man who accidentally killed Joe’s mother in a drunk driving accident. Elle Fanning plays Alice very well, giving Joe a bit of a first love bite while being very innocent if not mature for a middle school student. Much of the film dialogue between Joe and his friends lies on top of each other but is so witty and funny, very much like the kids of another Spielberg-produced classic, The Goonies. Because of how well written these kids are, they have no problem being the center of the film, rendering their adult counterparts as background noise but also as reasons to achieve what a child can’t in some of the more dramatic action moments. It may be because of these greatly developed characters that at times the story around them feels a bit open ended and never fully realized.
The plot itself is not weak but at times, the execution of the story of father and Sheriff Deputy Jackson Lamb and his filmmaking son Joe is never fully realized. Struggling to openly cope with the death of Jackson’s wife and Joe’s mother, the two are strained at the core, not finding a connection of really knowing one another when they are obviously stricken with grief and the inability to be a family minus one. The underrated Kyle Chandler plays the arch type hard working father who plays helper and protector of a town absent a sheriff after the old sheriff suddenly disappears, but can’t understand and protect his own. He is by no means a bad father, just a man with tough exterior not too sure how to handle what mom did so well. Where that ends up is a satisfying ending, but much more needed to be said about the obvious mutual understanding that both characters have realized from their experience.
If there is anything to complain about with Super 8, there are but two inherently important things that could’ve been done better. The first is the alien creature itself, which is shown sparingly throughout the film in Abram’s “Less is better” technique, but what is glimpsed takes away from what you ultimately see by the film’s end. The design itself also resembles a more muscular, slick version of the Cloverfield monster, creating a monster that you can’t quite put your finger on when its first seen. The major difference this time around is it’s given an almost humane quality in order to enforce a sympathetic quality to this scared creature (the humane quality is bright green human eyes which are initially shielded from view).
The other problem is the film’s strong sense of familiarity. While I understand that Super 8 is designed as a film “in the vein of classic Amblin Entertainment films,” just how familiar it gets at time in the story’s structure and tone is surprising. This by no means hampers the film, but it’s quite obvious at times that the influences of Close Encounters, E.T., and The Goonies are prevalent. This doesn’t prevent it from being greatly original, in fact, compared to those three aforementioned titles, the dramatic nature of the plot makes it much deeper in tone than any of the famous Amblin works. What’s important here is Super 8 is original, even if it borrows from some of the best. What film doesn’t chip a little piece of the statue off in order to enhance a film’s feel as well as pay homage to something so great? Super 8 is one of the best science fiction films of recent memory and falls into that category of being almost genre less as it combines horror, comedy, adventure, and more importantly, heart to create a film of great spirit even if its qualities we have enjoyed before and will continue to enjoy for years to come in other guises.
Rating: 8 out of 10 (Excellent)