Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Super 8 (2011) – Review

Review: Super 8 is a throwback to the great sci-fi and adventure films of the late 70s and 80s, but with a bit more action. More specifically, it feels very nostalgic (especially for viewers that grew up with films like The Goonies, Stand by Me and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, three films that seemed to have influenced this one greatly) both visually and tonally. Writer-director J.J. Abrams certainly drew inspiration from the films of Steven Spielberg (who also served as the film’s producer), Richard Donner, Rob Reiner, and other filmmakers working during the late 70s and 80s. The film takes place in the late 70s, featuring some great music cues and references (as well as nice horror genre references, and homage, especially to the work of George Romero). Abrams also exhibits his own passion for filmmaking, which comes out in the scenes featuring the group of friends making their zombie movie (which is awesomely shown during the ending credits), and has stated that many of those scenes are based on his own experiences making films as a kid (and these scenes appealed to me on a nostalgic level as well, having made films with my friends growing up and in film school). His love of the genre, its great films and filmmaking in general give this film charm and his characters sort of an innocence (sort of like looking back to a better time – Abrams’s Golden Age, if you will – taking an idea from Woody Allen’s own summer film Midnight in Paris). The fact that the principal characters are a group of middle school kids in a small Ohio town also contributes to the sense of innocence to the characters. They come off as good-hearted, and the begins of a romance between Joe and Alice is very sweet and harkens back to our own first loves or crushes, which immediately makes these two relatable for the audience. The comradeship, jokes, and dialog between them are really what make the film work so well. Abrams is brilliant at developing good characters, which he again illustrates with these giving each their moments and drama so that the viewer feels connected and understands them (which is so important), while at the same time keeping the story and action moving forward at a rapid pace – the narrative structure is very tight, the viewer engaged throughout. Abrams puts his characters before anything else, which is rare for a big summer movie (many of which focus on the special effects and the action and then seemingly add characters as an afterthought). (As much as I loved the film) viewers that are not fans of this genre (and the pre-mentioned films from the 70s and 80s) will probably find the film too interested in the friendship of the characters and the film they are trying to make (as the action and sci-fi aspects are really the backdrop until the two story elements collide), but I think that is what makes it great. Abrams loves his characters. But do not worry, the action is also good. There are many thrilling and well shot sequences (especially the train crash). But again, without the great character work done, these action scenes would not have the same impact as they do, because the viewers would not care about the characters to the extent that they do. The film definitely puts a lot of effort into paying homage and having a nostalgic aspect to it (maybe too much for some), but it works well in setting the tone (though, I wonder how it plays for younger viewers who may not be familiar with the films it is referencing, as to some extent it seems to have been made for those like Abrams who grew up with and love these films, and filmmaking). All in all, Super 8 is a wonderful addition to its genre and will hopefully influence and be adored by a new group of fans (and filmmakers), as the films that inspired it were to their fans.

Technical & acting achievements: J.J. Abrams is very accomplished in the realm of television, but this is his first original feature film (his first two being Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek). He also oversaw most of the marketing, keeping the story elements (especially surrounding what escapes from the train) a secret (something that I wish more films would do, nothing worse than having the trailers spoil the film, and nice to see Paramount Pictures trust their filmmaker). With Super 8, Abrams has again shown that he is a top director when it comes to making films that are suspenseful and high on action but also have great characters and drama. I think it is safe to say that he is an auteur filmmaker. Working on his ninth project with Abrams, composer Michael Giacchino does great work (as usual). His score captures both the excitement of the action and the wonder of the young group of friends. Cinematographer Larry Fong and relative newcomer production designer Martin Whist (this being his biggest film to date) both have also worked on Abrams’s projects in the past. Fong’s work is very good. He has a lot of experience shooting action (working with Zack Snyder in the past, including this year’s Sucker Punch), which he again does a great job with, but it is the overall look of the film that works so well (being both homagy and nostalgic, and having a quicker more modern style to it). This also has a lot to do with Whist’s great sets and design work as well. While the 70s certainly shine through, his work as has sort of a timeless and wholesome quality to it, which fits the film extremely well. As stated above, the younger members of the cast really make the film special. Supporting work from Kyle Chandler and Noah Emmerich is good, but overshadowed by the funny and addictive friendship shown by Zach Mills, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, and especially Riley Griffiths. Elle Fanning does not start as part of the group, but she quickly finds a place. She is remarkable in the film, winning the hearts of the characters and the audience. Joel Courtney makes is film debut and is excellent. He is able to carry the film, do the dramatic work and be funny. He has a bright future ahead of him.

Summary & score: Sure there is a big nostalgic aspect to the film, but really this is just an outstanding sci-fi adventure with marvelous characters that pulls you in and great action to keep you on the edge of your seat as the mystery unravels. 9/10

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