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Monday, June 13, 2011

Super 8 (Release Date: 6-10-2011)

        His name might mean industry power and clout now, but believe it or not, there was a point when Steven Spielberg was just a kid on a ridiculous hot streak. There's never been a point in the man's career where you could readily say that Spielberg was losing it, but just take a look at how the guy came out of the gate: With just One previous feature under his belt (1974's The Sugarland Express), Steven made Four straight undeniable classics in a span of just Seven years (Jaws in '75, Close Encounters of the Third Kind in '77, Raiders of the Lost Ark in '81, and E.T. in '82) with only one semi-forgotten entry ('79's 1941) breaking up his jaw-dropping streak. With the help of George Lucas, Spielberg ushered in the type of big-budget film-making that we are constantly bombarded with today, but he did it with a style, grace, and (even back then) sense of nostalgia that has helped preserve the magic of his early entries even unto today. And now, from a producer's chair, and with the help of Director J.J. Abrams, he's trying to bring it back.

        Like all good old-school, Spielbergian romps, Super 8 sets lays its scene in a small suburban town with both an earnest and an eerie sense to it. This time, it's middle-of-nowhere Ohio, and we open by learning that Father Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) and preteen Son Joe (Joel Courtney) have just lost a Wife and a Mother respectively. Flash-forward Four months, and Joe's life goes on, as he busies himself by providing Lighting and Make-Up for a Zombie movie that his perfectly typical fast-talking, large-bodied, smart-but-pushy-and-with-a-side-of-comic-relief friend (Riley Griffiths) is directing. They soon enlist the acting abilities of Joe's big school crush, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), but just as things are starting to look up for poor Joe, the crew witnesses a horrifying Train Crash that they are lucky to survive, and soon enough, a multitude of strange occurrences are taking place all over town.

        Admittedly, I am not as attached to the early-Spielberg as this movie's target audience likely is, but there's no denying how fun the trip back in time is. From costuming to cinematography, Abrams does a bang-up job at standing in for the big guy, his movie boasting of the same feel of all of those flicks, but with more production value and the advantage of passing time. But that time spent perfecting aesthetics would be worthless if they were to slip up in either of the Two social worlds that Spielberg and his early 80's cronies were always so good at recreating: Rambunctious friend groups, and Melodramatic home lives. Good thing Abrams is all kind of on top of it, his scenes of familial unrest just as tear-jerkingly over-the-top as they should be, and the pack of young boys having such a fully developed chemistry with one another that it's easy to forget that they're acting. In both his script and his direction, Abrams proves wholly up to the task of a full-blooded Spielberg homage.

        It's a shame, in that case, that the Spielberg aspects of the film don't mesh better with the Abrams ones than they do. Abrams comes from a different era, a more fast-talking, quickly-moving one, and when he feels the need to step on the gas and pump up the sci-fi action, it is sadly at odds with everything that has come before it. About Forty minutes in, Super 8 completely had my number, but as soon as Abrams remembered that he is himself, a great deal of the magic started to diminish for me. I'm no Abrams hater: I thought that Star Trek (2009) was one of the most undeniable big-budget pleasures of the last several years, and the parts of Super 8 that really pop (and there are plenty) work mostly because of him. It's just that half of Super 8 comes from Thirty years ago, and the other half comes from today, and Abrams never even comes close to reconciling that disparity. Near the end, when all the secrets are revealed in ho-hum fashion, I was largely checked out from the movie, having been nurtured on sweet nostalgia only to be blasted by digital effects and crushing sound time and time again. But as much as I am tempted to, I need to not let that take away from the movie's truly inspired aspects, most specifically the opening act. A mixed bag to be sure, but a mix of soaring heights and disheartening lows.

Grade: B-

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