Sorry for the delay on this one, but due to Bonnaroo and some eCommunications issues, my Super 8 review didn't go up online until Saturday. Fortunately, you can experience it here. In keeping with my newfound freedom to
The Lamb family is reeling from the tragic death of steelworker/mother Elizabeth, leaving son Joe and Sheriff's Deputy Jack (Kyle "Coach from Friday Night Lights" Chandler) to figure out a whole new way of life without her. Lillian, Ohio's smalltown charms keep the Deputy occupied, but never with anything too terribly serious. Yet the two Lambs are growing farther apart, with young Joe throwing himself into making a Super 8 zombie film with a bunch of his friends. It's a concept that resonates in the work of this film's executive producer Steven Spielberg, and one that finds commonality in the dreams of countless kids who've wanted to use the movies to tell big stories of their own.
These are an interesting bunch of kids, and we get to know each of them, getting a feel for their different backgrounds and attitudes, but understanding how the urge to make something awesome has tied them together. Special praise is due Charles, the director and writer of the film the kids are making, played by newcomer Riley Griffiths; his is the best fat kid character in a movie since Brett Kelly in Bad Santa. And Elle Fanning, who stole the uneven Somewhere away from Stephen Dorff just last year, is remarkable here. She has a rehearsal scene that hits with a power you wouldn't expect (very Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive); there's an electric quality to how she taps into emotions, finding the perfect mesh of precision and passion. Also, Glynn Turman makes a visceral impression as the school biology teacher, who here more than karmically atones for his character's actions in 1984's Gremlins, just one of the many subtle in-jokes for fans of classic critter cinema.
Super 8 is determinedly Spielbergian, but that's sort of the point. It's been marketing itself with a great trailer that incorporates all the tropes of Spielberg's 80s work, utilizing its kids' ensemble and mysterious SciFi whatsit in a way that practically promises you "E.T., but with a scarier alien." There is raw emotional pain at the center of this film, dealing with serious issues and deeply felt family conflicts, and it's in that aspect that the film is truest to its late 70s/early 80s Spielberg influences.
What's funny is that the Spielberg production that is more accurately comparable to this film is The Goonies. The way it ties family troubles into adventure and peril will resonate with any child of 70s or 80s film, and writer/director/producer J.J. Abrams, at his best, aims to create a work that gives kids today some significant emotional commonality with previous generations. And that's admirable.
If it never quite reaches the greatness of its aims, I'm still inclined to show it some love.The opening scene does an exceptional job of saying volumes without saying a word, like one of those Truman Capote sentences that are concise, yet hold forth much meaning. A sign is the signifier for the Lamb family, one that sets up much of the engine that drives the film.
Abrams juggles so many different elements and exceptional moments for so long that it feels like he could conceivably go the distance and knock one out of the park. That is, until a three-minute chunk of the film combines some unfortunately-timed anthropomorphism, a gloppy ton of sentimentality, and a literalization of the film's primary theme that threatens to derail things completely. Things have been going so well for so long it's hard to get too mad, but it really means the difference between a fun popcorn epic and a new classic of across-the-board storytelling.
One thing that Abrams does, making his own definitive statement about the social history of the U.S. since the late 70s/early 80s, is gleefully destroy suburbia on both figurative and literal levels. Spielberg's films found comfort in the small communities whose families had fled the city, and Abrams takes some insane joy in allowing late-70s suburban life to be destroyed by the military industrial complex and the boiling anger that its ideologies instilled. If its alien isn't up to Cloverfield standard (say what you will about that uneven effort, but it had an exquisite monster) or to H.R. Giger's monsterpiece, it tries for mystery and menace for a good 90% of its runtime, which is certainly the way to do it. Super 8 has ambition and style, and several great young adult performances. I wonder what works it will inspire from future generations?
A note for the prospective viewer. Something happens during the ending credits that makes everything pull together with a majesty that is incredibly heartening. Don't be in such a rush to leave, and let your theatre know not to bring up the lights too soon.