Mark Reviews Movies

Super 8


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: J.J. Abrams

Cast: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Riley Griffiths, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Gabriel Basso, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Glynn Turman

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:52

Release Date: 6/9/11 (IMAX); 6/10/11 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 8, 2011

Drenched more in motif than nostalgia, Super 8 is a combination of period science-fiction tale and coming-of-age story whose paths eventually collide in disconnected schmaltz. It's strange how well writer/director J.J. Abrams handles the individual pieces within each division—from the youthful imagination of mounting an amateur film production to the hidden threat of a largely unseen creature—while stumbling through the use of shorthand character tropes to attempt to bring it all together emotionally.

Take the movie's protagonist. He's a boy on the verge of adolescence during the late 1970s named Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney). Joe has two absentee parents. His mother died in an accident at the local steel mill at which she worked, and, in the months since the incident, his father Jack (Kyle Chandler), overwhelmed with his newfound duty of being a single father, has taken to focusing on his other major responsibility of serving as a deputy in the Sheriff's Office of the small town of Lillian, Ohio.

Joe, meanwhile, starts to take his job as makeup artist on his friend Charles' (Riley Griffiths) student movie about zombies attacking a small town, which he is shooting on the eponymous type of home movie camera. At the luncheon after the funeral for Joe's mother, his other friends (a group of types—wimpy, dopey, pyromaniac—that are developed no further than their one-liners will permit) wonder if the project is the best thing for their buddy to tackle, and Charles (With his constant, obsessive hunt for "production value," he comes across as a self-aware in-joke for the movie as a whole) points out that his mother is dead, not a flesh-eating zombie. With everything happening in his main character's busy life, Abrams leaves what turns out to be essential development of the extent of Joe's grief to a prop—his mother's necklace, which he caresses in times of panic.

Of course, there's a girl. She's Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), a seemingly shy rebel (She takes the car out for a spin, despite not being old enough for a license) who sets Joe's heart a-thumping. In another clever bit of self-awareness, Alice enters the movie as a newly added character to Charles' script for his own movie, since, after all, a female character helps to make the hero more sympathetic. Like the rest of the characters, though, she doesn't move past Abrams' self-stated narrative necessity, making Charles' comment a bit too precise. A subplot involves her own father (Ron Eldard), who was indirectly involved in the death of Joe's mother, adding transparent conflict to her and Joe's budding friendship.

The plot proper starts when the band of lay filmmakers take a late-night trip to the town's train station and witness a spectacular crash (freight cars flying into the air, smashing into the ground, and exploding all over the place) after one of their teachers (Glynn Turman) drives his pickup truck onto the tracks. Joe hears loud clanging from one of the toppled cars, and its door pops off, landing close to him. Do not tell anyone, their teacher (somehow surviving the carnage) warns, and soon enough, Air Force personnel, led by Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich), are on the scene to investigate what happened to their train.

The kids are detached from everything that begins happening as a result of the collision. While they go about making their movie, using the panoramic view of the incident from atop a hill and the military's search of community homes as background action for Charles' need for scope, townsfolk begin disappearing in nighttime scenes punctuated by broad scare moments in which something is in the frame and suddenly disappears or vice versa. The population's paranoia kicks in (One woman thinks the Russians have invaded, while a man is hearing scrambled military chatter on his ham radio), and Joe and his friends keep going about their business as though nothing has happened or is happening.

The disengagement exists on a narrative level, as well. As the Air Force's actions become more mischievous (A "wild fire" breaks out near Lillian, thanks to some flame-throwers, and, thankfully, the military has set up a "refuge" outside the town limits), the creature roaming, causing electric surges, and nabbing people at night becomes the focus, though, even by this time, the characters are still defined by incidentals and clichés. The mystery of the monster itself is its purpose—menace, misunderstood, or a little of both.

How Joe, Jack, Alice, and her father's stories merge with that of the beast is a wholly generic sentiment toward reconciliation and letting go. When Super 8's cathartic moment arrives—complete with a literal release as a symbolic one—the movie, which supplants such situations for character development, simply has not earned it.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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