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‘Super 8’ Focuses on Storytelling

Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney, right) surveys damage left in the wake of an alien attack on his hometown.

Super 8 is a summer spectacular that proves you can have explosions, aliens and a good story alongside characters you care about.


By CARLOS PEDRAZA

Set aside the comparisons to E.T. and The Iron Giant. J.J. Abrams’ and Steven Spielberg’s Big Summer Movie stands on its own — an explosive and compelling showcase of both filmmakers’ strengths that should shame lesser storytellers’ so-called summer blockbusters.

Yes, Brett Ratner (X-Men 3), Todd Phillips (Hangover 2) and Michael Bay (every Transformers film ever made and likely to be made), I’m talking to you. I’m talking about how you sacrifice real storytelling for cynical cash-generating clones of once-original concepts; about how you fool spectacle-loving audiences into parting with their hard-earned cash with mere gimmicks (CGI and 3D).

Thankfully, Super 8’s writer-director Abrams and producer Spielberg understand that their past successes give them a special responsibility to continue try to give us good stories. In Super 8, they have succeeded.

Alice (Elle Fanning), Joe (Joel Courtney) and their filmmaking friends confront more than they expected when they set out to make their Super 8 film.

The film tells the tale of young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), whose mother’s death in a tragic workplace accident has driven a wedge between him and his workaholic sheriff’s deputy, Jackson Lamb (Friday Night Lights’ amazing Kyle Chandler). While filming their amateur Super 8 zombie spectacular, Joe and his school pals accidentally witness a train accident, capturing on film the mostly unseen alien prisoner whose revenge against his human captors drives the plot.

This alien ain’t no cuddly E.T. In fact, the movie is only tangentially about the alien. What really drives the story are the fully realized characters in the film, especially the cadre of Joe’s friends. More than any movie you may have seen in a while, their performances feel so real you can imagine these kids as friends you may have known in middle school.

In a sly comment on the cookie-cutter approach so many other summer blockbusters employ, Joe’s best friend and fellow filmmaker, Charles (Riley Griffiths), informs him that explosions, special effects, makeup and even zombies aren’t enough to make a story “flow”; viewers need to care about the characters, care about their journey, care that they have a real journey to begin with.

In one transformative scene, Alice (Elle Fanning) is recruited to play the short film’s love interest. Her performance touches the hormonal middle school boys at a profound level they likely did not know they possessed. And such performances in Super 8 elevate it over the typical summer dreck dressed up in cartoonish visual effects and 3D hoo-hah.

Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler) finally meets his alien nemesis, alongside his son Joel, his friend Alice and her father (Ron Eldard).Meanwhile, Abrams manages to present the adults sympathetically, avoiding the now-clichéd portrayal of clueless parents, a once-favorite trope of Spielberg’s. Special kudos to Jessica Tuck (HBO’s True Blood) and Joel McKinnon Miller (HBO’s Big Love) as Charles’ loving yet overwhelmed parents, who try to provide Joe a surrogate family in the wake of his mother’s death.

The U.S. Air Force fills the titular role of villain, embodied by the Machiavellian Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich). Not much new territory to mine there, but the real dramatic struggle is not against the mean soldiers, however. Like the alien itself, they all merely provide a setting in which Joe and his father must confront their festering grief.

The alien (masterfully and little-seen through most of the film), the explosive train wreck, the Air Force, the underlying conspiracy all provide the challenges through which father and son try to find one another again. Indeed, when Joe confronts the alien face to face, he seeks to prove that surmounting pain and grief may be a universal aspiration, making this alien movie finally, and most importantly, truly human.

Joel has a showdown with Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich).You may find some niggling problems in the film, like the fact that the driver of the truck that causes the derailment should in no way have survived a head-on collision with a full-speed train. Or that the plot setup for the truck driver ends up seeming just a little too conveniently expository.

Technically, the film is expertly made, though I did quibble with Michael Giacchino’s score, which is serviceable, but soars nowhere near his other work for Abrams (Star Trek) or John Williams’ work for Spielberg (E.T.). In any case, I think you’ll want to buy the story Abrams is selling.

Finally, in a nice touch, you should stay through the closing credits to watch the “actual” Super 8 movie the kids made. It’s an amusing homage to the dreams of young filmmakers everywhere, and a reminder that a well-crafted story, told with heart, can trump jaundiced Hollywood spectacle.

———

Carlos Pedraza is a writer and former producer for Star Trek: HIdden Frontier and Star Trek: Phase II. His feature film, Judas Kiss, is currently playing film festivals internationally. You can follow him on Twitter and on his regular blog, the Cosmic Sitcom™.

2 Comments

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  1. mythcreant says
    June 8, 2011, 8:56 am

    Been waiting for this one for a while now. Thanks for the objective and thought-provoking review.

    Reply
  2. Matt dickinson says
    June 12, 2011, 2:21 am

    I liked the movie a lot — especially a lot of the details in it (70s record store with speakers laid out for sale, Twizzlers, environmental mania during action scenes) — and I felt the movie hit me personally somehow, but I was disappointed in the way the monster/alien creature looked. It had the same close-up effects of the robots in Transformers, their faces. Also felt the main character was a little bland, though I LOVED the other kids, like the firecracker boy, the movie director, the girl (like whens he was screaming to get in the car during the train crash). etc.

    Great acting all around by everybody.

    However with your reviews please refrain from bashing the other directors unless you really got something to say!!! I like Michael Bay’s stuff (looking forward to Dark of the Moon and Bad Boys II is one of my favorite films), yet also like smaller quiet dramas like Ozu and Bresson.

    Reply

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