Jul 6, 2011

Super 8 (2011): C+


If I were to weigh the merits of Super 8 on a scale of purely quantifiable pros and cons, it would be impossible to not recommend it. Unfortunately, the experience of watching a movie is a different beast than the numerical sum of its parts, and as far as cinematic experiences go, this one's a case of ultimately dashed high hopes, no matter how much it has going for it along the way. No doubt, J.J. Abram's expertise is as apparent here as it was in the immensely enjoyable popcorn actioner Mission: Impossible III and 2009's spunky Star Trek sequel/prequel/reboot, and similarly unmistakable is his knowledge of and appreciation for the romantic wonder of the early films of Steven Spielberg (whose serves as producer here). Alas, it's in Super 8's meticulous attempts to recreate that magic (think E.T. + Close Encounters x Poltergeist) that it ultimately comes up short, fizzling at the moment is should detonate and instead revealing a Frankenstein soul grafted together from predecessors to the point of overdependence, rather than finding its own, one organic to the proceedings at hand.

The story is exquisite crackerjack material (an escaped malicious alien, military, cold war paranoia, American suburbia, etc.), all the better as seen primarily through the eyes of a group of teenage friends who hope to spend the summer months finishing their shoestring budget zombie movie in time for an upcoming short film festival. Makeup artist Joe (Joel Courtney) is the axis on which the drama pivots: reeling from the recent loss of his mother and subsequent tension with his distant police deputy father, his efforts to lose himself in ragtag filmmaking are upset - in no particular order - by a budding romance with no less than the daughter of the person most responsible for his mothers untimely death, and the aforementioned extraterrestrial on the loose, an event inadvertently witnessed by the young filmmakers when a late-night shoot at a railway station sees an Air Force train deliberately derailed (in awesome setpiece fashion) by a former military scientist long since discharged for subversive conduct. The military's been hiding something, and that something is both hungry and pissed off.

The scenes involving these kids are the most effective and genuinely endearing the film has to offer; coupled with a knowing and humorous look at do-it-yourself filmmaking, Super 8 frequently teases the viewer with a self-reflexive commentary on cinema as self-discovery that unfortunately never develops beyond a vague thesis statement. Even so, there's plenty of truth to the way these adolescents interact, and Abram's choice (as screenwriter) to leave the monster offscreen for most of the film allows them to function as genuine characters in ways that the plot ultimately doesn't know how to fully capitalize on. As heartthrob Alice, Elle Fanning turns in a pitch-perfect child star performance that, along with her sadly unseen turn in Sofia Coppola's sadly unseen Somewhere, should propel her to stardom. (Oscar, this is something you should reward.) Amongst child and adult performer alike, there's not a weak link here, but that can't stop Super 8 from hitting a wall of thematic shortsightedness once weapons start blazing in the third act. Schematics kick in, complex relationships get wrapped up with insufficient neatness, and Abrams elicits little in the way of genuine wonder with his otherworldly revelations; the hand-me-down emotions are washed out, and fleeting value notwithstanding, the whole thing retrospectively smacks of a cinematic paint-by-numbers kit. A semi-brilliant end credits sequence salvages some of the lost promise, but by then the pleasantries feel like a mere afterthought.

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