Monday, June 20, 2011

Movie Review: Super 8

So, this is summer. As time goes by and one gets farther and farther away from their school days salad years, summer seems to be less of a thing. When you're a kid, this means there's no school, you can play outside, and you can see your friends whenever you want. By adulthood, summer tends to mean nothing other than it getting hot out and gas prices going up. You still have to go to work every day but at least you can drink on a patio.

I think I must have really become a grown-up this year: the scale I use to determine this is that this is the first year I can remember where I was more excited about the Awards Season Oscar contenders than about the big summer tentpoles. I've always loved summer movies but now Fridays come and go and on many days I couldn't tell you what big blockbuster came out. Wasn't Green Lantern out this weekend? Whatever.

In this day and age of bald face studio calculation, the summer movie experience can be especially soul-crushing. Two months so far has only yielded a handful of memorable movies alongside a veritable barrel full of disappointments and misfires (looking at you Hangover Part 2). And the worst part? They're all sequels or at least tangentially related to a well-established money-making property. Nothing original has come out it years.

And now J.J. Abrams' Super 8 comes along and while "original" might not be the best way to describe it, it's definitely the best movie of the summer so far.

Super 8 has been receiving a lot of hype over what feels like the past year. In typical Abrams fashion, audiences were kept in the dark about the movie's plot, which in this epoch of movie trailers revealing absolutely everything about a film from plot points to action beats to one-liners, was about as refreshing getting a cooler of Gatorade dumped on one's body (minus the inevitable bee-attracting, sticky aftereffects). Though, of course, the "secret" promoted by Abrams and the film's advertising campaign was probably the least interesting thing to do with the picture.

It's the story of a boy named Joe, who has just lost his mother to a tragic small-town-Ohio steel mill accident. Joe's dad, a local sheriff's deputy (played by Friday Night Lights' Kyle Chandler, the man America wishes was it's dad) is having a hard time dealing with his and his son's grief and a distance develops between the two. The boy finds solace in his group of friends' homemade zombie movie, filmed on the eponymous film stock and one night while shooting a scene at the local depot, a train bearing Air Force insignia experiences a traumatic (and apparently not accidental) crash, and its mysterious and apparently quite large and alive cargo escapes, bringing all sorts of spooky occurrences to the town in its wake. Soon enough, the government shows up and Joe and his friends have an adventure on their hands.

Set in the beautiful year of 1979, Super 8 is the perfect reminder of why summer movies can be great because it harkens back to that golden age: post-Jaws, post-Star Wars, the turbulent era of the blockbuster's ascendancy. Sporting the coveted Steven Spielberg production pedigree, it feels like a lost Spielberg project from the E.T. era. It sports the same affection for wholesome Americana and the nuclear family as well as some genuine darkness and scares that typify Spielberg's best early work. There's a lot of moments and themes here that will make audiences think of previous entries in Spielberg's filmography from alien visitation (Close Encounters, E.T.) to foul-mouthed misfit kids (The Goonies), and while that doesn't do wonders for the advancement of J.J. Abrams' as an original director, it's still a very good thing.

Something to be noted is that The King of the Lens Flare (it's use has been toned down in this one) is coming off the biggest hit of his career so far with 2009's Star Trek, and while that was a rousing success critically and commercially, the director is untested with an unestablished, non-franchise film (his first was the third-for-some-reason Mission: Impossible movie). While Super 8 consciously apes Spielberg at every opportunity (under his direct supervision, no less), it proves that Abrams is more than just the Lost guy who directed that really good Star Trek movie; he's a real filmmaker.

Somewhere in the vast expanse of the internet, someone noted that Spielberg and Lucas' early Indiana Jones/Star Wars output was harkening back to the Saturday matinees and pulp heroes of their own childhood. Here, we have today's up-and-coming filmmaker J.J. Abrams making an homage to the movies he himself grew up with, the type that he feels need to be brought back for the youth of today.

As I mentioned before, as good as it was, the not-so-secret escaped government test subject is the least interesting part in the movie. The film's greatest service is that it lets the audience play around with being a kid again. Joe and his friends making their zombie movie is a joy to watch; there's a genuine love and admiration for no-budget, goofy filmmaking going on here. The group of kids has every great archetype in it: the fat loudmouth, the spaz who likes to light things on fire, the sweet Girl From The Wrong Side of the Tracks, and the nerd who barfs when he's scared. The gang is so much fun to hang around with I almost forgot that the military was declaring martial law.

It's beyond easy to get sucked into Joe's world of summer, where all that matters is monster movies and riding your bike and your friends. It's a sentiment sorely lacking at the movies these days, and the kids coming of cinematic age over the next couple summers are in good hands with J.J. Abrams at the helm.

Final Verdict: 77 Congos