Thursday, June 16, 2011

Super 8

SUPER 8                     B
USA  (112 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  J.J. Abrams

Much like this director paid tribute to the Star Trek TV era, especially good at catching the various personality traits of the major players, this film pays tribute to the era of Spielberg, including several of his notable movies.  Again, Abrams does some things extremely well, like catch the E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982) innocent mood of the kids who continually hang out together with no adult supervision, eventually tracing the presence of an alien presence in the community while also establishing a great build up of suspense for the horrible presence of an unseen monster in JAWS (1975), not to mention the U.S. military creating a diversionary catastrophe from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) which sends the local community into mass hysteria while covering up their real mission, which remains top secret.  While there is also a shared love for big box-office special effects, like Abrams last film, there is an over-reliance on loud explosions, as if this is the only way to cause adrenaline rushes, yet this kind of destructive mayhem exists throughout the film, led by Noah Emmerich, perennial bad guy who heads the secret Air Force unit, a guy who will stop at nothing in supposedly tracking down public enemy number one, their top secret monster they've been keeping under wraps that is suddenly missing and unleashed on the public, refusing to share basic information, even as it destroys communities and ravages the countryside.  Unlike Spielberg, this has a darker menace throughout, as there are constant images of death, demolition, and destruction, where these kids are running through the streets alone trying to avoid getting killed, which is a far cry from being caught by their parents for doing something they’re not allowed.  Like BAMBI (1942), the first Disney film to kill off a helpless fawn’s mother, the audience quickly discovers that Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney with a slight Ralph Macchio resemblance), the lead child’s mother has also been killed, leaving him alone with his distant and self-absorbed father, Kyle Chandler as the Sheriff’s Deputy, a man caught up in the town’s hysteria with no answers to quell the maddening voices. 

Set in 1979, the film starts out innocently enough with a group of middle school kids led by Riley Griffiths as Charles, who are trying to make a special effects Super 8 zombie movie to enter into a local film contest, though they feel compelled to strain for greater effects, since 15 and 16-year olds will also be competing.  Sneaking out at night, they meet at the railroad tracks, including the presence of Elle Fanning as Alice, the cute girl that the boys think would never talk with them, surprising them all with her own rebellious streak.  Much like Drew Barrymore in E.T., Fanning is a joy to watch, showing maturity beyond her years, not to mention a charming talent in front of a camera, where despite playing a ghoulish zombie, her beguiling presence unsettles the boys who have been best friends for years.  As if to accentuate this imbalance, they witness a horrible train accident, where a train carrying Air Force top secret materials gets derailed in spectacular fashion, where they each defy death and somehow survive while unknowingly capturing the event on film, making their escape before anyone is detected, vowing to keep it a secret, as they believe something horrible will track down their families.  First animals go missing, then appliances strangely disappear, entire car engines are pulled out of cars before people start mysteriously disappearing as well, including the sheriff, where only weird noises can be heard in the dark before a violent attack of some kind snatches its prey.  This leaves Joe’s father in charge of these strange inexplicable random events, but the military finds his incessant questioning curiously disturbing, as if this was somehow preventing them from carrying out their mission.  Unfortunately the warped world of the adults is an unpleasant contrast to the more stellar ideas and enthusiasm shown by the playfulness of the kids, who inherently trust one another, as opposed to the world of adults where suspicion and the unending use of violence reigns. 

Despite the plentiful use of special effects sequences, the best thing in the film is the smaller-world interaction of the kids, whose unique personalities add humor and intrigue to the story, where they’re a close-knit group that draws the audience in with their appeal, led by Joe, who can’t stop thinking about Alice, the real heroine of the story.  It’s impossible, by the way, not to think of Mark Borchardt from Chris Smith’s AMERICAN MOVIE (1999), striving for years to finish his low-budget zombie flick Coven, played entirely by friends and family, which is pretty much what these kids are up to as well.  But when the world around them goes crazy, with people going missing, a military presence taking over the city, and several events witnessed which defy gravity or known science, these kids, perhaps without realizing it at first, feel they are on a mission to save the world, turning this into a Mission Impossible (Abrams directed the 3rd) kind of episode where they are driven to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles, but done with a charming enjoyment and intelligent humor.  What doesn’t work, balanced against this obvious fun, is the unpleasant deviousness of the American military, even resorting to secret arrests and images of torture, all of which defy the efforts of this spirited group, where the American military imposes a larger threat of violence than the actual monster.  Granted, this film reflects the mindset of the culture in the late 70’s, where Watergate, lies about secret bombing campaigns in Cambodia, lies about Generals boosting the number of enemy combatants killed in action in order to justify more troops, and the tortuous end of the Vietnam era did contribute to a general distrust of governmental authority, which included the military.  Still the heavy handed tone of militarism gone wrong, or in the wrong hands, sends this barreling down the wrong track, undermining their own monster special effects with a montage of non-stop military explosions of death and destruction, a whirlwind of exaggerated psychotic mayhem that was never part of the original story, that only detracts from the initial innocent hilarity of making that confounding zombie movie with a cast of overeager kids, and also kills the suspense leading up to the appearance of the monster, who has unfortunately been upstaged by the way over the top, uncalculated madness of humankind.

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