The latest from J.J. Abrams is a collaboration with producer Steven Spielberg and a tribute to his 1980s footprints. We love the title, a retro take on the found-footage genre, and though little else is known about the story at this point, we have to assume that Elle Fanning and her friends/family (five bucks says that Amanda Michalka plays her sister, or babysitter) get on their bicycles to take down this monster while the military storms through their town.
During the summer’s exhaustive parade of comic-book adaptatations and brainless blockbuster sequels, it is refreshing to see J.J. Abrams deliver a film that is an original and engaging storyline.
This is not to say that the premise behind “Super 8” is that revolutionary of a concept. It is basically “The Goonies” go to “Cloverfield”; or “Stand By Me” with cameras and monsters, whichever you prefer.
Even though the movie began its viral marketing campaign over a year ago (at one point, the production team hinted it to be a sequel to “Cloverfield”), Abrams and Producer Steven Spielberg have been notoriously tight-lipped about their collaboration. For months, all anyone knew was that it featured a bunch of kids shooting a movie with a Super-8 camera during the late 1970’s. As the film approached its release date, it became evident that a train crash captured in the background would serve as catalyst for an unstoppable creature of destruction in their small Ohio town.
Ironically, the substance of the monster movie components of “Super 8” is its least interesting aspect. Sure, this is an original idea written and directed by Mr. Abrams. But does it really seem so different than “Cloverfield”, or any of the other countless alien/monster epics that Hollywood cranks out year after year?
Again, this is not to say that the action elements of “Super 8” are in any way flawed or mismanaged through its jaw-dropping production value. This is, after all, the lovechild of Indiana Jones’ creator and the man who saved “Star Trek”. In fact, the plot-driven train crash is the most exciting action sequence I have seen in years. The sound effects are deafening and the explosions are gloriously frightening.
But as Hollywood megalomaniacs Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer repeatedly fail to comprehend, a solid fact of storytelling is that special effects without a central story is an incredibly dull thing. And what makes “Super 8” such a cinematic treat is not the mystery behind what escaped in the train wreck. It is the unquestionable appeal of these kids and their completely believable back-stories in the middle of all of this apocalyptic chaos.
Normally, kids annoy the hell out of me in movies. They are principally used to manipulate audience reaction with their predictable involvement and juvenile dialogue. Their presence typically contaminates the suspenseful framework of an action story. On top of everything else, they are usually bad actors.
But this is not the case with “Super 8”. Credit each one of these actors, as well as Abrams for writing dialogue that feels plausible and authentic coming from the mouths of these young aspiring filmmakers.
Remember what it was like to first fall in love? Or to be at the mercy of your father’s decisions regarding your own choice of friends? In ways that are remarkably fresh, Abrams has created a network of friends that are probably direct descendents from his childhood days of amateur Super-8 production in Los Angeles.
“I thought it would be fun, and funny, to tell a coming-of-age story about being that age, at that time, making movies,” according to Abrams. Inspired by the cult appeal of big-monster-in-a-small-town synopses of “Jaws” and “Halloween”, “Super 8” is a faithful rendition of what made these stories work over thirty years ago. It is not just the magnitudes of the destructive forces behind these abominable creatures. It is the color of the victims’ blood that makes these stories so alluring.
We need to worry about these characters in order to keep the story interesting, instead of salivating over their inevitable demises as in so bad horror flicks. Would John Carpenter’s “Halloween” have been such an iconic masterpiece if we did not care about Jamie Lee Curtis? Would “Jaws” be so celebrated if the shark struck a community that had a dull and unsympathetic sheriff?
Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths deserve independent praise for their performances as two best friends, Joe and Charles, who discover their unexpected puberties while surviving their small-town crisis. Ryan Lee and Zach Mills also earn honest accolades for their supporting roles as Cary and Preston, respective members of Charles’ film crew. Imagine the foul-mouthed Tanner Boyle from “The Bad News Bears” if he was a pyromaniac. That’s a fair comparison to Ryan Lee’s depiction of the explosion-obsessed Cary.
But it is Dakota’s sister Elle Fanning who simply steals the picture. As the token female on Charles’ production team, she inhibits the character of Alice with such quiet grace and stalwart appeal that it is no wonder that Joe becomes enamored with her presence at the onset. Her own background story is not only purposeful but also utterly convincing.
It is almost a shame that this credible circle of friends is forced to contend with a deadly creature’s arrival by way of an exploding train. Their individual stories are strong and believable enough to exist on their own. When the acting and writing is this good, who needs escapees from Area 51?