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With: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills, Amanda Michalka, Noah Emmerich, Jessica Tuck, Joel McKinnon Miller, Andrew Miller, Jakob Miller, Jade Griffiths, Britt Flatmo, Glynn Turman, Richard T. Jones, David Gallagher, Brett Rice, Michael Giacchino, Beau Knapp, Bruce Greenwood
Written by: J.J. Abrams
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use
Running Time: 112
Date: 06/09/2011

Super 8 (2011)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Frames of Reference

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by J.J. Abrams, Super 8 is a deliberate throwback to that 1980s subgenre, which had groups of kids going on adventures without the knowledge or approval of their parents. Some examples include Explorers, The Goonies, Space Camp, and of course, E.T. Spielberg was obviously involved in some of these films, and they seem perfectly married to his sensibilities. I'm not so sure about Abrams, though. I never really clicked with his directing style either on his TV shows, or on his two other movies Mission: Impossible III (2006) and Star Trek (2009).

On Super 8 he appears to have taken lessons from Spielberg, and the training paid off. Abrams seems more confident and more trusting in his audience. He loads up the film with all kinds of clever cuts and playful angles. There are several moments in which Abrams drops in a surprise right in the middle of a line of dialogue so that the surprise is totally unexpected, rather than timed to a more appropriate moment. There are many little Spielberg-like jokes, such as the guy wearing headphones who doesn't notice the commotion outside. Abrams also manages to throw in enough visual tidbits without giving away the origin or appearance of the movie's "thing." While most movies can't be bothered to keep a secret (see I Am Number Four), this one holds its payload until the third act.

And so Super 8 is a very well put-together movie. It looks great and moves well; it's exciting and funny in all the right places. But then, if you start to think about it, even a little bit, it starts to become apparent just how cursory the movie really is. It really doesn't have much of a point or an emotional drive. In fact, nothing in this movie is new. Abrams borrows liberally from classic sources. The major theme is roughly the same as Frankenstein, and a romantic subplot is inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Yet there's no joy or appreciation in these themes. Abrams simply uses them as if he invented them.

The story takes place in 1979, which allows for some era-appropriate pop culture references. The hero of the movie is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney). Joe's best friend is Charles (Riley Griffiths), who wants to make Super 8 zombie movies and enter them in a film festival. (For those born in the digital age, Super 8 was a format of motion picture film that was 8 millimeters wide. It was an improvement over regular 8mm film in that the sprocket holes were smaller, giving more room for the image and sound stripe. It was a fairly cheap format that regular people could use around the house.) Joe is a nice kid who does makeup and sound, and lets Charles push him around a bit. The rest of the gang consists of Cary (Ryan Lee), who wears giant braces and likes to blow things up; Martin (Gabriel Basso), the star of the movie that isn't too bright; and Preston (Zach Mills). Thanks to Charles' pushier qualities, he manages to get pretty Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) into the gang as well.

While shooting a scene in the middle of the night, the kids witness a massive train wreck and strange things begin to happen. Meanwhile, Alice and Joe hit it off immediately, but they're not supposed to see each other, due to an accident at the local steel mill that involved Joe's mom and Alice's dad (Ron Eldard). Joe's dad (Kyle Chandler) is busy being in charge of the town when the sheriff disappears.

Abrams doesn't strike me as a natural born filmmaker; he seems to be more like someone like Michael Bay who perhaps went into filmmaking as a business opportunity. Abrams figures out easily-defined personality quirks for his characters, and rarely budges from them. Characters that are set up to oppose one another don't get the chance, and even the bad guys don't accomplish much beyond sneering. What little behavior there is takes place before and after -- but never during -- giant-sized action scenes like the train wreck, which plows into a pickup truck and somehow train cars are being thrown sky-high in every direction, exploding like popcorn. That's more Abrams' speed.

This technique is the opposite of someone like Spielberg, or someone like Joe Dante, who directed Explorers (1985), and hasn't had a film distributed in this country since 2003; Dante would have been a much better choice to handle Super 8. He fundamentally understands the concept of a movie-obsessed kid, and the absurdity of a creature on the loose, and how the two are connected. For Dante, the process is organic, for Abrams, it's just inevitable.

With Super 8 I allowed myself to get carried away from time to time, based on the resemblance of this movie to those fun 1980s movies I loved as a teen. However, it didn't take long to sink in that it was only a resemblance, and that's the problem. Its basis is not emotion or experience or excitement; it's just old movies repackaged and remarketed.

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