Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Movie Review, "Super-8": 1970's Nostalgia Lost In 2010's Commercialism

A couple of weeks ago, amid all the excitement surrounding the release of J.J. Spielberg's "Super-8" (no, that is not a typo) I wrote a personal essay about what it was like for kids to make Super-8 movies in the 1970's
(Recollections of a Super-8 Filmmaker, June 18). 

As my enthusiasm grew, I shared another story about the making of one film in particular (The Exorcism: Our Super-8 Masterpiece, June 20).

So naturally I was ready to be entertained and have a nostalgic laugh or two at Steven Abrams' (that's right) new "Super-8", a film that so ineptly failed to explain its title, that some (mostly younger) viewers still don't know what it means.  While the filmmakers may have thought that using the name of the old home-movie format would lend a "District 9"-like gravity and mystique to this film, they missed out on an opportunity to tell a great story about a group of kids having the time of their lives in an activity as simple, yet fraught with drama and humor, as making an amateur movie.

I don't understand why this movie was set in 1979: apart from some period music and styles, and the fact that this is an homage to 1970's sci-fi movies that we were all supposed to have loved, very little is done with the era.  It seems to exist in that time because "ET" and "Close Encounters" were from that time, and because super-8 film was used then. 

"Super-8" could have been updated with the kids using a digital video camera, and it would have been a better fit with Abrams' contemporary filmmaking style here, with wisecracking, loud youngsters running and shouting and puking, overblown explosions, a score that invades one's consciousness without one memorable tune, and lackluster CGI that already looks inauthentic.

I don't want to trash this movie, because the inner child in me was entertained by some of it, and compared to a lot of the supernatural slam-bang blockbusters marching lockstep across screens this summer, this at least has an original premise.  I liked some of the performers, and a few of the set pieces were interesting, if typically overdone.  And of course my favorite scenes were those in which the kids were working on their zombie movie for a film competition.

If I could have retooled the script, I would have made the kids' filmmaking the focus of the whole picture, and jettisoned the sci-fi aspects, or at least toned them down somewhat.  Their finished movie, shown over the end credits, is far and away the most entertaining scene in this entire picture, and "Super-8" deprives us of participating in the making of most of it.

True, "Super-8"was not the movie I would have made, and it's unfair to hold it to my own image of what it could have been.  But even within its own logic, it goes off the rails as spectacularly as the train that carries a horrifying secret early in the movie.  It's little more than a checklist of Speilbergian elements as a sap to the baby-boomers in the audience, buried in a preposterous suburban humans-vs.-alien-in-peril scenario that, too, is a Spielberg mainstay.

The plot's "checklist" introduces so many elements that "Super-8" nearly doubles over on itself resolving them all.  There's the boy in conflict with his father, the girl in conflict with her father, the fathers in conflict with each other, and of course boy and girl defy their fathers and remain friends.  There's the overweight, bossy kid (who directs the zombie film), the nerd with braces who blows things up, the nerd with glasses with the weak stomach, the likable protagonist, and the girl all the boys like.  There's the scientific secret gone awry, the evil authoritarian military figures, and the precocious kids who solve everything.  There are the unexplained phenomena, the mysterious blue lights streaked across the lens, and a creature that turns out to be benign, to ensure a lump in the throat when the earthlings help it get "home". 

Scriptwriting 101, even in a tribute to films of this genre, dictates that it would be impossible for the characters, let alone the audience, to form a bond of affection with a creature as ugly as this one, one without human facial expressions, that is seen for barely five minutes. 

The movie is at least 30 minutes too long, and trades on noise and mayhem to cover up the plot holes and resolve all of the conflicts that are set up.  The parent-child conflicts to me were always the weakest aspects of the Spielberg blockbusters, and here they serve merely to drag things out.

The kids who form the core of the film are generic movie goonies, with two notable exceptions.  Joel Courtney is fresh and honest, and has a cute pixie face and is skilled with dialog. (Watch him deliver the stilted lines in the "zombie film"...it takes real talent to play it this badly). He is terrific.  Elle Fanning is pretty and emotes well.  She is excellent in her scenes in the zombie film.  Much as I liked her, though, it would be a very weak year indeed if this   performance is held up for award recognition.
As I settled in with excitement at the start, and then saw the potential of "Super-8" fall away (why didn't we see what the camera saw immediately after the train wreck?  Why didn't we get included in some of the more hilarious scenes for the zombie film?  Why did the dogs run away in the first place?) I tried hard to abandon all of my expectations and just enjoy the explosions, and the score, and the kids, and the creature, and not take it all so seriously.  I came away having had a mildly good time, and forgot my troubles, but I wished someone would have honored the old activity of making super-8 movies just a little more.

This could have been something super.

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