Saturday, June 25, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

A group of geeky suburban preteens led by Charles (he of the camera and vision) and Joe (he of the makeup skills and the Dead Mom) sneak up to the old train depot one school night circa 1979 to surreptitiously film a scene for their ongoing 8mm zombie epic. They've even managed to convince Alice, a hottie from homeroom, to play a crucial supporting role (turns out she's a natural actress, the only one on set, which never hurts). A train approaches, Charles yells "Production value!" and calls for action, but the kids get a little more than they bargain for: their science teacher Dr. Woodward drives his truck onto the tracks, causing a ridiculously massive and elaborate (not to mention fiery) derailment. In the resulting rubble, Joe finds a stash of small white cubes that look like Rubik skeletons; he pockets one just as Shadowy Authority Figures begin arriving at the catastrophe. The kids make their escape -- though not, of course, before being warned by the dying Dr. Woodward they must never speak of this event lest they and their parents be killed. In the days that follow, while the super-8 footage from that night is processed out of town, the mystery of the crash deepens as Joe's dad Jackson (also the deputy sheriff) is stonewalled by the government's cleanup crew; he's additionally frustrated with Joe's burgeoning involvement with Alice (who happens to be the daughter of the man he blames for his wife's/Joe's mom's death). Charles keeps filming, using the train wreck as background for his zombie invasion project, though actual stranger things (see what I did there?) begin happening in town: engines vanish from all the vehicles in a used car lot; bizarre lights are seen in the town graveyard; that weird little cube punches a hole in Joe's bedroom wall so it can fly up and start pecking at the side of the water tower. Once the kids break into Dr. Woodward's storage locker of confiscated property and secret papers, they might find answers -- but can they do it before the Government forces an evacuation and burns down the whole town to erase the mystery forever?

J.J. Abrams may well be the modern master of the Plot Hole, but he has the decency to stuff said holes with enough nostalgic flavor and warm callbacks to other films that it just doesn't matter. He's not crafting cinematic greatness, he's banging out a popcorn movie and he's totally not ashamed of it. Super 8 is quilted from the career of Steven Spielberg (whose company produced), recalling Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the evacuation from town as the Army sweeps in to control the narrative; the final scenes), E.T. the Extraterrestrial (alien stranded far from home), and The Goonies (the kids always know what's up!) though Abrams tosses in his own familiar devices (fictitious documents that provide the key to the plot; all those damn coronas). But chiefly, he accurately recalls a specific time and place better than Spielberg ever could while actually standing in that specific time and place. And let's not even mention Ready Player One (2018), okay?

Full disclosure, I'm in the bullseye of Super 8's target audience: Not only did I traipse in exactly such semi-miserable looking middle class suburbs during the late 1970s, trying to lose myself in afternoon-TV creature features, SnapTite monster models, and comic books, I was part of a small group of likewise fanboys who made 8mm films as a hobby, using a silent Bell & Howell rig to animate our Star Wars action figures (eventually setting them on fire, anticipating the excessive explosions in this film by more than 30 years). My aim back then was to be the kid from Disney's Mystery in Dracula's Castle (which featured a lighthouse instead of a castle, no real mystery to speak of, and certainly no Dracula), stumbling upon some Important Adult Event while out filming in the neighborhood. Abrams is careful, subtle with his cinematic wish fulfillment exercise: no beating the audience over the head with a knowingly packed soundtrack of groovy late-70s tracks; you've got to like a movie that knows just how to use Alan O'Day's "Undercover Angel." A pretty simple come-of-age-&-let-things-go story; things get heavy handed towards the end, but most everything works. Some critics espouse that the best films work like dreams -- non-linear and functioning more off emotion than logic. Super 8 is like those dreams which capture us near the moment of waking, when we know we're dreaming but are still willing to go along with the ride.

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