Friday, July 22, 2011

Super 8

There was a time, decades ago, when a spark was ignited in a certain young man's heart. Jules Verne might've already been the forefather of his creative whims, the author's tales so vivid to a young imagination. Soon after, the young man would discover moviegoing. Images and sound married on a huge screen drove this child's flights of fancy into overdrive. This was not TV. If I can pinpoint the moment my film appreciation and obsession began, it would be about the time the Millenium Falcon sped across the galaxy in STAR WARS. I was so excited and fidgety that I could barely sit still in the car on the way home. My afterschool playtime was forever changed; nearly every bit of my make believe acting out was influenced by the movie. Then, came CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, then....

What was it about fantasy films made in the late 70s/early 80s? Was there something magical about them? Or was I dazzled simply because I was an impressionable little kid? E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL came out a little later, when I was 13. I was still in awe. I have revisited the above films and many like them periodically as I've gotten older. They're still magical. Yes, the films haven't changed, I have (the sort of thing one says when they wonder why they are now disppointed with something they once cheered). I still love those classic Steven Spielberg and George Lucas films, even as I've found that other movies, TV shows, and music from the era now leave me cold or even embarrassed.

Those earlier films were magical for multiple reasons. The special effects wowed. The stories were engaging. The characters were recognizable from my own neighborhood. The action scenes revved our little hearts. Today's films are not so nuanced. They're pummeling. Each superhero, sci-fi, or chase thriller ups the ante on intensity to such a degree that anything less will bore its intended audience (mostly teens, but certainly overgrown adolescents as well). More action. More destruction and noise and spectacle. Less emphasis on characterization and mood. Dialogue, when intelligible, is reduced to a psuedo-clever sound bite. Filmmakers don't let their films build or develop with any sense of anticipation. The first images we see are climactic. Where does a film have from there to go? The wick has already been lit even before the studio logo flashes. Many of today's viewers have no patience.

This is why so many folks will not appreciate SUPER 8. Just go on imdb.com and see for yourself. It was so very predictable, the postings I saw. Many of them were even from people my age and older, the target audience of director J. J. Abrams' latest.

Huh. Maybe they just didn't understand what Abrams and producer Speilberg were going for. Anyone familiar with the Spielberg epics cited above can't miss it here. The loving tilt zooms up on teenagers' faces. The soaring orchestral score. The otherwise drab suburban landscape, suddenly filled with slashing lights and levitating objects. The (relatively) deliberate editing. SUPER 8 looks and plays like a film from the year in which it is set: 1979. The pans and dollies with a low POV, as if through the eyes of...an alien, mayhaps? Abrams even makes the film stock look a little grainy. He only could've done a few better by putting scratches and those little circles you used to see in the upper right hand corner, signal markers for the projectionist to switch reels (sometimes called "changeover marks")on his film.

But it's more than just tech. The warmth, the empathy, so clumsily attempted in most of today's popcorn films (and even some art house fare) played easily and effectively in E.T., THE GOONIES, and several others. Even minor things like THE LAST STARFIGHTER, a little gem from 1984, managed to transcend their modest budgets and screenplays and make you care. They made you believe you could escape and/or save your world. Even if the f/x were less than stellar they were still more involving than much of the computer generated stuff we see nowadays, in my opinion. This is ground I've covered many times here, but watching SUPER 8 made me realize that something significant has been lost in the summer blockbuster over the years. The sweetness? The heart? Yes.

Yet Spielberg's earlier films were not sappy. Sentimental, sure, sometimes corny, but never sickeningly sweet. They allowed their protagonists to speak like real kids, do kid things like sneak out and sample alcohol and swear. SUPER 8 involves a group of Midwest teens who find their little town the scene of something rather extraordinary. It begins one night as they try to film a scene (with a Super 8 camera) for their cheesy homemade zombie pic.

Joe (Joel Courtney) and his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), the director, rally their buds, including Cary (Ryan Lee), who always has pockets full of firecrackers and reminded me of Tanner from THE BAD NEWS BEARS, and Alice (Elle Fanning), a likely crush object for the boys, to an old train station for a midnight shoot. A train announces itself in the distance and Charles becomes quite excited, seeing an opportunity for "production values". But Joe also sees a wildly careening pickup truck racing, racing, seeming as if it is trying to beat the train at the crossing. Instead, the truck turns as if to meet the train head on. SUPER 8 then proceeds to stage a very impressive looking (and sounding) derailment. The kids' camera falls to the ground as they take cover. The film continues to run....

I don't want to give too much of SUPER 8's plot away, but suffice it to say that we will learn of the special cargo of the train, who was driving that truck and why, and what in Sam Hill all those military guys are doing at the wreckage and later, throughout the sleepy town. There are also subsequent disappearances, childhood romance, parental angst, lots of yelling, narrow scrapes, special effects...I knew little of the film going in and that is really the best way to approach it. I was also unaware of what an out-and-out homage Abrams had made, right down to the sound effects. It's impressive.

That what SUPER 8 is, period. If you nitpick the holes in the plot (and there are many), you've entirely missed it. I like what Ebert said in his summary: "it was like seeing a lost Speilberg classic". It really does feel that way, as if an old reel was discovered in a vault. Or a decades old unwrapped Christmas gift you found in the attic. Abrams has so meticulously crafted his film that even the CGI doesn't feel like CGI. He does also manage to work in a few refernces to some of his earlier projects, including CLOVERFIELD and Lost, but just fleetingly.

I so embraced those films of yesterday that seeing this new one allowed me to forgive some lapses in pacing and characterization and just enjoy. I've often wished I could board a time machine and spend a little time in my pre-adolescence. SUPER 8 is the closest I'll probably get to come, minus the zits and "birds and the bees" talk.

Addendum: You really need to stay through the closing credits. That sequence alone makes it worth the time.

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