Monday, June 27, 2011

Film Review | Super 8

8 Is Enough

By Thomas Delapa

Interviewed for Super 8, his retro, 1970s-era monster movie, writer/director J.J. Abrams declared to Parade magazine his idea was to “invoke the spirit of films that inspired me as a kid without xeroxing them.”

Well, no one can possibly say that Abrams’ toothless send-up is a carbon copy of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. or any other Steven Spielberg monster 1970s/1980s hit. It’s astronomically inferior. It makes 1941 look like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The creator of TV’s Lost who’s also made a small leap to the big screen, Abrams even got Spielberg to co-produce. What might be hero-worshipping homage for the former adds up to reel self-glorification for the latter.

Subpar on almost every level, Super 8 unspools as an ode to old-school amateur filmmaking in the days before the ascendancy of the video—and digital—universe. In the small Ohio town of Lillian, a group of nerdy kids (think Goonies) are making their own zombie flick. It’s the brainchild of chubby Charles (Riley Griffiths), whose crew includes the mop-haired Joe (Joel Courtney) and a blond leading lady (Elle Fanning) without a license to drive. In the first of Abrams’ tin-plated plot conceits, little Joe has just lost his mother to a deadly accident at the local steel mill.

An adolescent auteur in search of a story, Charles’ quest for cool production values leads the cast and crew to a desolate railroad station in the dark of night. But living truth demolishes undead fiction when a speeding truck slams into a passing train, causing a gratuitously over-the-top, pyrotechnic derailment that could only exist in a digitally juiced-up Hollywood movie of today.

In the aftermath of this wreck (both train and movie), all hell breaks loose in the town. Hidden aboard the train, the kids find a mountain of strange white metallic cubes. But something else has been unleashed, something gnarly and weird, and only the sinister U.S. Air Force knows what. That’s not the biggest mystery in Abrams’ story: Lillian must be such a backwoods burg, no media outlets bothers to cover the ensuing events, even as the calamities approach Three Mile Island fueled with War of the Worlds.

While Abrams pays lip service to the power of old-fashioned filmmaking, he derails it at every twist and turn. Loaded on as the major plot device, Charles’ Super-8 camera inadvertently captured the train disaster, but the revealed footage doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know or haven’t previously seen; the whole scene is treated like an outtake instead of a major MacGuffin. When we do find out what the train’s top-secret cargo is, it’s also thrown in like excess baggage. Abrams’ cavalierly hands the menace over to his special-effects crew, who generate a super-fluous digital monster that would put Roger Corman to sleep.

By contrast, take any of the aliens, spaceships or even demonic trucks from Spielberg’s classic sci-fi/horror hits and it’s striking just how much they were invested with a wondrous, otherworldly quality and weight. Abrams has no sense of wonder or real imagination. He’s a synthetic, low-gauge sampler of somebody else’s dream works.


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