Monday, 15 August 2011

'Super 8' Review

'Super 8' (dir: J. J. Abrams, 2011) Cert: 12A

As summer marches on and the remakes, reboots and adaptations continue fill our silver screens, we are treated to the occasional little gem, and this year's big-budget but kind hearted feature comes in the form of J.J. Abrams' 'Super 8'. It's taken me far too long to see this movie but alas, here are my thoughts.

 Set in the small fictitious town of Lillian, Ohio in 1979, 'Super 8' follows Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his group of friends who are making a zombie film on a Super 8 camera. After managing to convince a girl called Alice (Elle Fanning) to get involved with the project, the group set off to continue movie-making. During a shoot, a devastating train crash occurs leaving mountains of burning rubble and debris. Suddenly something unexplainable bursts from the fiery ruins and sets it's heart on causing havoc to the town. The group decide to pursue this strange mystery villain and aim to save Lillian from this threat. 

 'Undervalued' is a terminology that I believe perfectly sums up Abrams' latest - it seems as though because Steven Spielberg's name is attached to the project as producer, everything else is an irrelevance. Many have compared this picture to Spielberg's earlier work including 'E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial' (1982) and 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' (1977) and other 80s escapist pictures such as 'The Goonies' (1985) - now although these are stereotypically 'good' films and ones which many cherish, I think it's slightly unfair in regards to the ways in which these films are being compared. Various critics have basically accused 'Super 8' of being a carbon-copy of Spielberg's films, and more of a 'suck-up' rather than a homage.

 Personally, one does not agree. Granted there are similarities between this picture and some of the above, but consistently comparing does not do 'Super 8' it's justice; the film needs to be judged properly as a stand-alone work, rather than playing cinematic Top Trumps with it. 

 If I really had to compare it to any feature, it would be Rob Reiner's masterpiece 'Stand By Me' (1986) - although the film lacks any Sci-Fi element, it's fundamental narrative is about friendship, about life and learning through experience; the group of boys set out to find a body and consequently find themselves along the way. It's the same story with 'Super 8'; the film is driven by it's characters and their development as a group and as individuals, all the space-age stuff is completely secondary. I genuinely believe that if Spielberg's name wasn't attached to this project, the majority of people would not be making any fuss at all.

 Right, I'll actually critique the film now, and heads up - it's totally brilliant.

 As previously mentioned, the film's life lives with it's characters. We follow the group of children throughout and find comfort in their presence. As with many films where children lead, the group is slightly type-cast (The fat one, the geeky one, the brave one, the mad one and so on), but the type-casting and formatting ends there because thankfully Abrams knows the importance of character and development. Each member of the group is rounded, dimensional and interesting, as well as being frequently funny and effortlessly charming. Unlike some movie kids, these children are not brats, nor are they 'goody-two-shoes', they are your usual bunch of 12-13 year olds who witness something extraordinary. Abrams' fantastic script gives the group believable and naturalistic dialogue too, so yes the kids do swear, quite a bit actually but that's how youngsters talk. Kids these days...

Still from 'Super 8' (dir: J.J. Abrams, 2011)
 'Super 8' has been dubbed a family film too by some, again probably because it has PRODUCED BY STEVEN SPIELBERG slapped on the poster. I'd slightly argue against this - there are certain themes and messages here that are clearly aimed for the family audience; imagination, wonder, exploration and so forth, but there is also a lot of 'adult' material, and I don't just mean the language. A key narrative theme throughout is loss; the film opens with the funeral of Joe's mother and ideas of loss and misplacement are heavily implied during - even everyone's dogs run away. The film is also 'quite' scary and violent in places; there's no gore and just a very tiny amount of blood but the first hour is weighted in tension and suspense, something that may either terrify or bore smaller viewers. I would not see any particular harm in letting an under 12 watch it, just maybe not if they are under 8 or 9.

 As well as a brilliant group of characters and a cracking script, the film also sports some wonderful cinematography and breath-taking special effects. The train crash is utterly incredible and one of 2011's best CGI sequences - the epic pyrotechnics, flying carriages and deafening sounds make it a stand-out scene in this grand work. What's even better about the CGI is that there's very little of it; after the train, there isn't much more catastrophic action until the picture's climax, but filling that void is easy due to just how good the young actors are. The picture's duration simply flies by.    

 Every performance is strong with Fanning and Riley Griffiths who plays Charles Kaznyk (the fat one) being the show-stoppers. Elle Fanning is such a brilliant young actress, much like her older sister Dakota, but thankfully she has moved out of her shadow and dominates here. She may not have as much screen-time in the third act, but she is certainly the performing highlight of the picture. Griffiths consistently provides the comedy and has great timing for someone of only 14 - his facial expressions added to his comic delivery make him irrevocably entertaining. Courtney is great as Joe and does very well with carrying the emotional sequences as well as the escapism elements. An opening scene of him sat on a swing-set is lovingly delicate and heart-rendering; it's a superb bit of psychical acting. The other kids are great too, particularly from Ryan Lee who plays Cary - the kid's a pyromaniac, what's not to love?

 Coming back on the discussion earlier, 'Super 8' is certainly a homage rather than a 'suck-up'; it's a homage to simpler times, better cinema and the sense of awe and magic that swept through youth. If any film is going to embrace and bear-hug your inner child for 112 minutes, it's this. Abrams has crafted some unforgettable characters, a gripping and often tense environment and has breathed life back into retro science-fiction. By all intensive purposes, 2011's summer has been pretty strong and this is yet another brilliant addition to the pile - it's quite simply sheer entertainment.

A film with a mighty big heart, and every inch in the right place. A modern classic in the making and amongst the year's best.

By Chris Haydon

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