Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Monster Summer Movie: Super 8

     Thirty years ago this weekend, Steven Spielberg hit his stride with directing the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. As we all know, that great film combined action, adventure, humor and danger to form two hours of pure fun. It's fitting then, that J. J. Abrams, a Spielbergian protege, steps up to the plate decades later with Super 8 to take his swing at creating a summer blockbuster that reminds us of watching films when we were younger, when the world was at our feet and our eyes were filled with wonder over what was transpiring on the large screen. Tony Soprano once said that "'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation." Thankfully, that does not apply to movies: Super 8 is like remembering that essence of childhood that adults barely remember, and above all, remembering what it's like to witness a wildly exciting and touching summer film.
     And it is like those old Spielberg films, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. But it's a new and exciting take that uses all of the advances in film technique, style, and story to tell a completely new tale. Kids riding around on bikes and making movies with old super 8 cameras, the first feelings of being fascinated with girls, the terrifying excitement of witnessing a disastrous event--these things transpire with an attentiveness and awe that is hardly ever reached for most other take-your-entire-family summer entertainment. Mentioning films that are similar to a new film is usually a detriment, but here it actually works, and it's like watching The Goonies for the first time as a child.
     I'm deliberately not going to delve too far into the story, so here are the basics: set in a small town in the 1970's, a group of friends (all with vividly different personalities and interests [all of which come into play in creative ways later in the film]) are making a short film to enter into a local contest. These are hardcore future movie makers, not unlike Abrams and Spielberg were as children, and they take their job very seriously, so when a train is about to pass through one of the pivotal scenes in their homemade film, they are excited about the added production value. Thing's don't go as planned when the train is derailed (accidentally or intentionally?) and explodes in front of them.
     From this point on, Hell breaks loose in the lives of the kids involved. At this young point in his career, J.J. Abrams is already very adept at creating new and exciting ways for Hell to break loose: his previous two directing efforts were the action-packed (and best of the trilogy) Mission Impossible: III and the awesome reboot of Star Trek that I would watch any day over the dated and shitty old versions, and he also was the co-creator at the beginning of ABC's Lost, when it was just great network television and hadn't gotten all alternate reality/purgatory on us. That's not to say that Abrams is only a one-trick pony, executing cool action scenes with ease: quite the contrary. Some of the best parts of the film are the realistic portrayals of relationships--the relationships between teenage boys and girls, their friends, and their parents, whether they're still on this Earth or not. The film slowly unravels the mystery of the crushed train's cargo on a backdrop filled with boyhood's love of summer, girls and butterflies in the belly.
     Super 8 edges out Source Code as my favorite movie so far of 2011, and the way that the year is shaping up in regards to future releases, I can easily surmise that it will be near the top in the end. Like many reviewers have said, it's like watching an early Spielberg film for the first time. The key word is Nostalgia, something that I'm not usually a sucker for but works wonders when it's done correctly. Super 8 does it correctly. As Don Draper once said: "Nostalgia: it's delicate, but potent."     (A)

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