If E.T. Had Balls, It’d be Named Super 8
A Film Review of Super 8
By: Lawrence Napoli
Finally, the summer of 2011 has delivered a second film that has at least met its own hype; that is to say, for those that knew it was coming in the first place. For a special effects feature collaboration between two of Hollywood’s biggest names (J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg), I was quite unimpressed with the marketing campaign that preceded the release of Super 8. As a fan of several DC comic books, I did notice the lengthy inserts depicting a prologue of the events that unfold in the film. However, I cannot help but think whatever expense that was afforded this particular advertisement strategy would have been better allocated for more TV spots and trailers. The primary reason for this concern is that despite Super 8 being recognized as one of “the big boys” of this summer, several people I talked to about this film had no idea what it was about and even less interest in finding out. The kind of people who read comic books are cognizant of J.J. Abrams, Bad Robot and the franchises they represent; so a movie tie-in with the comic book industry, for a film not based on a comic book license, makes precious little sense to me. Advertising, like the Wii video game system by Nintendo, is an experiment in attracting the disinterested in one’s product - and whoever was ultimately responsible for promoting Super 8 should never be placed in charge again.
I certainly don’t mean to begin this review with sour grapes (yeah, a real change of pace for sure!) because Super 8 was a fun cinematic adventure. The “kid” angle was definitely pushed in the TV ads, which can alienate most people who don’t have kids themselves – a large population of people who have the time and discretionary funds to go to the movies regularly. Featuring kids and animals in one’s production is a severe handicap in the movie business (historically) with precious little positive precedent to emulate. I too, would be leery about a film that features children as the main characters, but after seeing the end product, it is clear that with the proper direction even children can deliver onscreen, and make an audience believe. Rest assured, you do not have to be a mom, dad or child to thoroughly enjoy Super 8, but families will find this movie to be very entertaining all the same. However, I do not consider this film to be “safe” for parents who even remotely consider themselves to be “over-protective.”
Super 8 is a film that channels E.T. in terms of plot and perspective while completely eliminating the protective shield of childhood innocence. These kids are put in the middle of very real danger that can occur to anyone, anywhere within one fateful instant. Nothing illustrates this better than the film’s inciting incident which features an explosive intensity that rivals the beach storming sequence of Saving Private Ryan (1998). What seems to leave a larger impact, however, is the fact that these children represent a certain type who develop a stronger sense of assertiveness, if not outright rebelliousness, as a direct result of less than ideal home environments. Despite revolving around completely fictitious events, Super 8 is unashamed of the fact that in the real world, no one is innocent and as dangerous as that concept is for its level of maturity, the film uses it to empower its characters, make them more relatable and to develop a strong sense of sympathy from the audience. This is where Super 8 takes a giant evolutionary step ahead of E.T. in terms of theme. Self reliance is an invaluable tool for every age of human existence and it yields tangible results of surviving and thriving. I was impressed by this film’s sense of drama and suspense that was a direct result of the children’s independence. Not only is J.J. Abrams to be commended for his clear literary proficiency, but for his acumen as a director. Few professionals can inspire children to perform beyond the level of a child (even with tons of rehearsals and in a completely controlled environment). If surpassing Spielberg is a professional goal for J.J. Abrams, he is well on his way with a project like Super 8 under his belt.
Casting and performance: Super 8 folds like a cheap deck of cards without these two elements coming together to fuel its core strength - character. Character is truly where Abrams excels, whereas his ability to communicate a fantastic story can more easily be drawn into debate (AHEM, Lost). Fortunately, a cast of relative unknowns rally behind an unlikely seasoned veteran for her age in Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota. I don’t know what Mr. and Mrs. Fanning are feeding their daughters, but they ought to consider making it into a pill and distributing it to 80% of Hollywood actors. Elle plays Alice Dainard, the romantic interest for the main protagonist, and early in the film she is introduced as a fellow classmate of a group of boys who are making a short zombie film for submission to an independent festival. She agrees to act in their film, and a truly transcendent moment occurs onscreen as the group films a scene by the side of a train station at night. Elle generates genuine, adult level drama in that moment as she spontaneously generates tears in the process. This display leaves the rest of the boys (and the audience) completely dumbfounded at the immense quality of her performance. From that moment on, Ms. Fanning sets an extremely high performance level for the rest of the cast to follow. I have not witnessed such a high caliber performance out of a young actress in a feature film since a very young Natalie Portman accomplished such a feat in a little film called Leon: The Professional (1994).
Not to be outdone, Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb whose relationships with his family and friends fill the center piece of the plot. Surprisingly, Super 8 is Joel’s very first film work, and the chemistry he develops with Elle Fanning can only be attributed to a healthy amount of rehearsal, bonding and legitimate friendship that developed between them to get that level of performance recorded on film. Call it beginner’s luck or call it whatever you like; Joel showed a consistent ability throughout the film to maintain dramatic pauses in just about every single scene to allow his demeanor to do the real talking. The rest of the cast (including the adults) do a more than adequate job filling their roles, but I feel the performance of Kyle Chandler was sold short playing Joe’s father, Jackson. The film attempts to set up some semblance of a resolution between father and son as a result of family tragedy, but there are simply not enough scenes with them both to see this subplot culminate in a satisfactory manner. As a result, the script glazes over the details and manufactures a quick fix, thus negating the hard work Chandler put in towards the beginning of the film.
The special effects in Super 8 are of the level that X-Men: First Class ought to have been. From the pyrotechnics to the digital creatures, ILM once again shows that it is the leader in the visual effects industry, and I’m sure Spielberg got a “friend rate” from his boy George Lucas to get that quality level of work for a film with a meager budget of $45 million dollars. I particularly enjoyed the cacophony of explosions and the sound mix used to really make them “pop” in the theater. I found the creature design for the alien to be quite impressive despite the fact it shares a physical resemblance to the monster in Cloverfield (2008). The best effects are indeed the most subtle as most of this film is shot in natural environments during the day time. But this film frequently discards all subtlety quite often to showcase all manner of mayhem and destruction as the result of a really pissed off alien.
Super 8 will never be considered the timeless class that E.T. was through no fault of its own. I’d even go so far as to consider it a superior film in terms of dramatic tension, performance and effects. However, modern day audiences have been subjected to sci-fi effects and stories for far too long to have the same type of imagery resonate with the same magnitude. Potential viewers would be doing themselves a severe disservice if they were to disregard this film as a result of children taking the lead in the narrative. Make no mistake about Super 8: this is a film you should make the time for amidst this blockbuster summer regardless of who and how old you are. It would certainly make a better family experience than Green Lantern for Father’s Day weekend, but chances aren’t very likely that the smallest of the summer blockbusters has a yellow lantern’s chance on Oa to compete with the emerald warriors.