By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
The look and feel of a magnum opus from Spielberg, who produced this movie written and directed by J.J. Abrams, is unmistakable, from the camera angles, to the mood, to the plot exposition. So you sit there, rather entertained by the character development, and wait for something truly grand to happen. After the closing credits, you’re still waiting.
We’re again talking alien(s), who may or may have not come to this small town in Ohio. Interspersed among the doings of a cadre of precocious teens hell-bent on making a horror movie with their ringleader/director Charles’s Super 8 camera, things begin to really go bump in the night. Oh, maybe it’s nothing. Tensions rise. No, it’s something.
Well, it better be something, because director Abrams successfully puts us at seat’s edge for nearly three quarters of the movie before we get a glimpse of what could be causing all the worry. Whether it exists or not, for now let’s call it The Monster. At times, we think we can see it through the gauzy filters of night. Whatever it is, it can’t be good.
In engaging contrast to the brewing storm, the albeit familiar construction of Middle American sociology, seen through the trials and tribulations of our intrepid filmmakers, paints a Rockwellian idyll, now challenged. The unknown threat is a metaphor for the creeping doubts that real life has a habit of surfacing. Fear not, it won’t deter the kids.
We’re first introduced to the mill town milieu following a terrible accident at the plant. In hushed tones, polite folks gather at the home of Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney). His mom has been killed. Bits and pieces of relationship data inform that Joe’s dad, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a deputy sheriff, has bonding issues. Good thing Joe has his filmmaking pals.
He’s the FX/makeup guru, counted upon to make a zombie look like the real deal. Chubby Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths), who probably already knows enough to get a scholarship to UC Berkeley’s film program, assumes Joe won’t let the personal tragedy interrupt his participation in their latest project. The show must go on. It’s good therapy.
Others aboard include Martin (Gabriel Basso), the lead actor; Cary (Ryan Lee), whose pyrotechnic contribution borders on obsession; and unflappable tech helper/actor, Preston (Zach Mills). The thing is they need a female lead. Summoning courage from beneath his directorial guise, Charles asks pretty Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to join the crew.
Gee, she agrees. And not only that, but helping facilitate a sneak-away, midnight filming session, the unlicensed driver “borrows” her dad’s car and ferries the guys to the train station where Charles hopes to capture his perennially vaunted “production value.” Abrams uses the occasion to introduce the ironic dramatic complication, with a boom.
But while the unexpected cataclysm the troupe witnesses is stunning, after a minute or two of seeing the laws of physics catastrophically proved over and over, the mangled steel shown at multiple speeds and from every angle, it grows curious. It’s a sign of the times. Sensationalism in and of itself does little to advance the story or make us think.
Hitchcock, for example, might have averted our eyes at the very last second, allowing just a terrible screech to plant the horror in our minds. But then the story would have to be better woven, thus assuring that we were more interested in why the calamity occurred than what it looked like. That might not do for today’s high sensory threshold types.
Filmmaker Abrams has no great tale to tell, no profound surprise to unleash in the eleventh hour. What he does have is a darn good bit of character interaction. In a style part Spielbergian but also reminiscent of the mood Rob Reiner created in “Stand by Me” (1986), there is a nostalgic peek into the dynamics that help shape our kids’ friendships.
Yet, the morality tale that ties that into the parent-sibling issues which beg resolution is as perfunctory as it is predictable. O.K., we can forgive that. But what truly disappoints us is the monster. After waiting all this time, you’d think it would be something really terrific. I mean, you have all those special effects and this is what you give us? C’mon.
Granted, the horror movie within a horror movie is niftily conceived. And the acting performances by Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths are quite winning. But while a smarter integration of its parts might have made for a somewhat better movie, it would take nothing less than a more inventive monster to make “Super 8” truly super.
“Super 8,” rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by J.J. Abrams and stars Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths. Running time: 112 minutes
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