Sunday, June 3, 2012

Super 8: A Feeling Person's Blockbuster

There's never a shortage of comparisons or complaints in the sci-fi world, is there? "It's ET, remade." "It's Stand By Me, remade." "It's The Goonies, remade." "J.J Abrams is Steven Spielberg, remade." Forget all that. Super 8 is a film, an excellent one, created by a man who loves films, is skillful at writing and making them, and who hasn't forgotten what it's like to be a child. What more can you ask?
A synopsis is hardly in order, as most everyone has certainly seen the previews by now, so here's what you probably already know: a group of junior high kids witness a train crash while making a zombie film; something scary was in one of the train cars. People start disappearing, electricity starts acting weird, the military shows up, and so on. What you might not know however, is that the principal character, Joe (Joel Courtney), has just lost his mother and like all the best cowboys, has a few daddy issues with his father, a deputy policeman. Super 8 is really two stories, the story of the scary thing that came out of the train car and the story of Joe, his grief, his feelings, and his connections with everyone around him. The film weaves the two tales together brilliantly by the strength of its characters, effects, and skillful use of suspense.
Seeing interesting, likable kids in pain (Joe deals with the loss of his mother and emotional unavailability of his father) or danger (the kids witnessed the train crash and captured the escape of the "cargo" on film) puts the viewer in a state of concern and tension, and by feeding us, little by little, just enough information to sustain those feelings, the film succeeds (not unlike Abrams' LOST) in stretching two basic issues into layers of ongoing questions. Don't fret; these questions eventually all get answered and resolved (and the Super 8 Zombie picture gets finished!).

Much like Martin Scorcese, J.J. Abrams is a director who cares very much for his characters, it's evident in every scene. The lines spoken come from a carefully crafted script and the actors give realistic, moving performances having obviously been coached and directed well. Joe Lamb is just one of the youngsters tearing around town lugging film equipment; the rest of his posse includes Charlie, whose zombie film they're making, Preston, Martin, Cary, and Alice, the love interest. Their honest banter, their innocence, and most of all, their total commitment to each other as friends again and again strike emotional chords in the viewer; they're interesting, likable kids. 
The film's most brilliant scene, aesthetically, is unarguably the train crash and Joe's struggle to escape it; part Saving Private Ryan and part Jack Shephard from the pilot episode of LOST, we see one of the most moving, troubling disasters ever created. The feeling and experience of confused panic, often times solitary, is one that Abrams knows and knows well; it's one he consistently forces on his heroes (and his audiences). The explosions, the fire, the grinds and scrapes of metal on metal, and complete chaos of the crash scene are horrifying, and not unrealistic. Once the "creature" escapes and the film's focus shifts to it, there come some further wonderful (horrible) moments of both sight and sound: the sheriff lingers outside a gas station after pack of dogs chase by (something scary); a serviceman hovers in his truck's cherry picker as he attempts to fix some wiring (something scary); and Joe and Charlie see part of what their camera actually recorded the night of the crash (WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING?). The incomplete glimpses, the swells of orchestral score (original music by Michael Giacchino), and hearing the creature's noises before ever seeing it created exciting, suspenseful drama. 
One can't help wondering just how much of his own youth Abrams put into the story, Charlie's explanation of successful drama to Joe, constantly hollering, "production value!" each time something interesting happened in the film's background, repeated script changes, and so on. Whatever the history, it was beautiful, a remake of absolutely nothing, and a filmmaker's Valentine to film from start to finish. Bravo.


Justin Garrett Blum said...

Donald and I were just talking about this movie over on my blog. I think I liked it more than he did--maybe a lot more. On the balance, I thought it was a pretty decent film, though I didn't love it owing to what I felt to be the B-movie plot that didn't have a great resolution. As a film about characters, I did think it was successful and charming.

Donald said...

I watched the entire last twenty minutes on fast forward and it still felt too long.

Donald said...

Oh, and turn off captcha!! It's the worst. Blogger's spam detection is so good you don't need it anyway.

Anna said...

Yeah, I will. BLogger has been seriously pissing me off lately. None of the images stay where I put them. all the text is messed up when I copy/paste.

WHen I think about it, the ending to this is pretty cheesy, but as with most everything else I end up loving (the others end up hating) I feel like the charming, interesting characters won me over way before that so it didn't matter much what happened, I cared more about them, not their vehicle.