Paying reverence to Spielberg
By Ann Hornaday
Thursday, June 9, 2011
In “Super 8,” J.J. Abrams’s ardent love letter to the Steven Spielberg films that inspired him as a kid, a chubby would-be director named Charles (Riley Griffiths) keeps running around his small Ohio home town, framing its cul-de-sacs and tract homes with his hands and calling for “more production value.”
Charles is shooting his own zombie movie — on the Kodak home movie film stock that gives “Super 8” its name — and he has commandeered his adolescent friends to work on his cast and crew, already evincing the ambitious vision and bullheaded energy that define directors at their most gifted and tyrannical.
Even at their most meta, the scenes of Charles’s movie-within-a-movie turn out to be the best parts of “Super 8,” which takes more than a few pages from such Spielberg-directed-or-produced classics as “E.T.,” “The Goonies” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Set in 1979, this is a pop-culture nostalgia trip that feels as if it’s been beamed from a sweeter, more innocent time, when youngsters could tear around on bikes all night without texting home and when the height of technological innovation was a clunky, cassette-playing Sony Walkman.
“Kids walking around with their own stereos, just what we need,” the town sheriff says at one point. “It’s a slippery slope, my friend.” That’s about as winking as it gets in “Super 8,” in which Abrams reverentially re-creates the spirit of early Spielberg to a spot-on fault.
While Charles and his team are filming a nighttime scene at a train station, they inadvertently record a horrific accident that ends up drawing the attention of the U.S. Air Force. Charles’s makeup/sound/special-effects guy, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), is convinced that something is afoot, between the mysterious military ops, an electrical grid gone haywire and a epidemic of missing dogs. As he tries to get to the bottom of it, he finds support in Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the zombie movie’s leading lady, whom he has long crushed on from afar.
Joe and Alice’s relationship unfolds with wistful, tender gentleness in “Super 8,” which juxtaposes Joe’s tentative romantic forays with his far-thornier dealings with his recently widowed father, Jack (Kyle Chandler). Ultimately it falls to Jack, a square-jawed deputy sheriff, to quell the rising hysteria as the town is invaded by a monster that, in the best tradition of Spielberg (who produced his own homage here), remains unseen through most of the movie.
Just what and who the monster is forms the central question of “Super 8.” But despite Abrams’s best efforts to ratchet up the tension, the mystery never takes compelling hold, a weakness that becomes especially clear in the movie’s anti-climax of an ending. At that point, the already thin story gets wrapped up so neatly that viewers will scarcely have time to process its plot holes. (What were those little white boxes for, anyway?)
Like the adolescent director ordering Joe and Alice around, Abrams has taken note of what made Spielberg’s movies work back in the day — adventure, wonder and high emotional stakes, with an isolated young protagonist who overcomes adult cynicism to make empathic contact with an alien being. But all too often the plot feels calculated rather than organic, the result of a time-tested formula rather than genuine innovation. (It doesn’t help that Abrams has a tendency to move and twirl his camera, inching up so close that the action is rendered dizzyingly incoherent.)
The times when “Super 8” comes most to life are when Charles and his minions are shooting their zombie movie — including some very funny scenes of guerrilla filmmaking as Charles quickly rewrites his script in order to leverage the ongoing military operation for his own backdrop.
Bursting with verve, humor and resourceful grit, these are also the sequences when the otherworldly Fanning emerges, not just as a fetching ingenue but as a true movie star. As she proves in her first big scene as Alice doing her first big scene, it takes a terrific actress to play a terrific actress who doesn’t know she’s terrific.
Just moments after Alice transfixes the boys with her line reading, Abrams unleashes the kind of spectacular set piece of hurtling metal and exploding fireballs that Charles could stage only in his wildest dreams. A testament both to Abrams’s own roots as an amateur filmmaker and to how far he’s come as a Hollywood player, “Super 8” succeeds best as a valentine to first movies, first loves and the enchantment that ensues when they intersect. That’s production value worthy of even Charles’s exacting standards.
Contains intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, profanity and some drug use.