Review: SUPER 8 (2011) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Monday, 13 June 2011

Review: SUPER 8 (2011)


When the teaser of SUPER 8 was first arrived a year ago, (everyone) were anticipating and debating about the nature of the movie. And yet producer Steven Spielberg and director J.J. Abrams have done a great job on keeping their much-secretive movie as vague as possible. No doubt their marketing strategy had easily made SUPER 8 as one of the most anticipated summer movies of the year. Then again, such strategy can be a risky choice as well, particularly if the movie turns out to be a completely bogus cinematic experience in the end (read: M. Night Shyamalan's THE HAPPENING). Luckily there's no such thing happens in SUPER 8, except that it isn't a great cinematic masterpiece one might expect in the first place, given the combined talents of J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg involved here.

Set in the year of 1979 in a small town of Lilian, 12-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother in a tragic steel mill accident. His father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), who is a local deputy, feels very pressured and particularly unprepared to become a single parent. Nevertheless the two of them hardly see things eye-to-eye just about everything, and especially the way how Jackson doesn't even bother to care about his son's needs as well as his feeling. So Joe is rather spending most of his time hanging out with his best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), in which they decide to spend their summer break shooting Charles' Super-8 zombie movie. It's actually a project Charles is hoping to get his movie recognized in a film festival.

Charles' project gets a major boost with the participation of their pretty classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) joining the crew, in which they will be shooting a scene at a local train depot. During the time when Charles rolls camera in hopes of getting some extra production values into the scene with an oncoming train in the background, something bad happens. A speeding pick-up truck hops onto the railway tracks and derails the train. Chaos ensues, and the youngsters are all terrifying to witness such incident. Apart from the train crash, they didn't expect something otherworldly has actually escaped from one of the tightly-sealed cargo cars. On the other hand, they also discover a cargo car filled with lots of small silver objects shaped like Rubik cubes. Joe ends up keeping one of them, and they soon realizes the train crash is caused by their biology teacher Mr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), who specifically told them to keep their mouth shut about the train incident.

Over the next few days, Joe and his friends are having tough time trying to stay tight-lipped about the train incident especially when the sudden arrival of military force, lead by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich). Then strange occurrences start to happen from time to time. Electrical equipments are being stolen. Power lines are torn down, while dogs and peoples are mysteriously gone. The head sheriff-in-charge Pruitt (Brett Rice) goes missing, and Jackson is left to fulfill his full responsibility to step up for the panic community. Meanwhile, the youngsters begin their own investigation to find out the truth behind the mysterious occurrences.

From the look and feel of the movie, it's obvious that J.J. Abrams is trying to imitate his childhood idol's filmmaking style which is none others than Steven Spielberg. In fact you almost feels like you're watching one of those Spielberg's nostalgic old movies back in the days when he made two sci-fi classics, 1977's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and 1982's E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. And for that, Abrams succeeds admirably. No doubt he has the youthful energy and awestruck enthusiasm that struck the chord of a Steven Spielberg-like cinematic quality. Earlier in the scene, there is a spectacular train crash that is nevertheless one of the most exciting set-pieces ever seen in a long while. It's a show-stealer of magnificent pyrotechnics, realistic special effects and pounding sound effects -- all amazingly captured in such majestic scope, that one must enjoy this particular scene in the theaters for maximum impact. Subsequent dramatic set-pieces (such as the gas station scene and the bus scene) are equally well-staged, especially the way how Abrams likes to tease the viewers with the power of suggestion (particularly for keeping the appearance of the beast as little as possible) hardly seen in today's big-budget movies. Visually speaking, with the help of his amazing technical crew, Abrams is an accomplished stylist as always and he certainly knows how to put the viewers on the edge of their seats.

But thematically speaking, this is where Abrams doesn't particularly excels the most. Sure, he has all the intentions to evoke the nostalgic coming-of-age story Spielberg loves to make back in the old days. You know, typical father-son issues, childhood dreams, teen romance and values of friendship -- the checklists are all intact, except the heart is rather somewhere in-between. Don't get me wrong, all the drama scenes here are watchable. Except that Abrams is lacking the certain restraint to pull off a better-executed emotional impact. Perhaps it's because of the laborious pacing, which also sometimes drags the movie into an unnecessary two-hour length. If the movie is settled with a tighter pace, it would have been better. Equally less impressive are some of the key revelations depicted here, which most of them are either left unexplained or abandoned altogether. For examples, the subplot involving all the missing dogs and particularly the loss of Joe's pet dog is more of a throwaway filler than anything else matters. The final third act, in the meantime, feels anticlimactic especially given all the dramatic buildup earlier on. I wouldn't say it's entirely disappointing, but I can assure it's not something out-of-the-world kind revelation one might expect.

That aside, the cast are thankfully credible enough to keep us hooked with their well-defined characters. All the youngsters in this movie behave like real kids, unlike those glossy imitations pretending to be one. Both newcomers Joel Courtney and especially Riley Griffiths, who plays as a bossy but endearing chubby kid Charles, are simply terrific with their breakthrough performances. But of all the youngsters, it is Elle Fanning who nearly steals the show with her emotionally-compelling performance as Alice. She was only twelve-year-old when this movie was made, and already she's so remarkable each time she appears on the screen. As for the adults, Kyle Chandler is a particular standout as a headstrong father, Jackson. One scene, which involves a heated conversation between him and his son, is simply memorable.

As a conclusion, SUPER 8 is an admirable throwback to yesteryears sci-fi genre. It's good, but it's not great while Abrams has still much to learn from his childhood idol, Steven Spielberg, for polishing his craft of filmmaking. In the meantime, stick around during the end credits. I won't reveal it here, but I can say it's worthwhile enough to make you feel inspired.


Crosby Kenyon said...

Thanks for your detailed review, Casey. It seems like a movie I would enjoy.

caseymoviemania said...

Well, Crosby... It's worth a watch, that's for sure. The effects are superb, considering SUPER 8 was modestly budgeted film compared to most like-minded, big-budget sci-fi blockbuster.