Friday, 12 August 2011

Close Encounters: Super 8 review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Dir: J.J. Abrams
Stars: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Kyle Chandler, Noah Emmerich
Running Time: 112mins

Steven Spielberg has, with Super 8, achieved the hilarious feat of producing an homage to himself. Though he's technically not behind the camera, he is everywhere else - on the poster, in the Amblin Entertainment logo at the beginning and the DNA of the story and style of a movie generously attributed to J.J. Abrams. It is more than a little depressing that the only blockbuster in this most horrible of summers - nay, years, so far - with even the slightest claim to being an original turns out to be little more than a watchable but hollow mimic, with little else to say for itself other than: "Hey, our producer has made some pretty cool movies."

If you dug Spielberg around his Close Encounters days, you'll probably find at least half of Super 8 to be perfectly enjoyable. Yet I suspect that even, or maybe especially, The Beard's most ardent fans will pick up on the essential emptiness at the movie's heart and the inherent futility in trying to recreate something so beloved. To be fair, the alien is more violent than most will remember, but this only leads to Abrams deploying his usual line in exhausted clichés. Fortunately, he captures the Spielberg aesthetic better than he did the horror documentary in the insufferable Cloverfield, giving audiences a more agreeable cushion upon which to endure his lazy writing.
The long and short of it is that the Spielbergy bits work just about well enough, while the Abrams bit fall flat. How much you enjoy the movie will thus depend upon what you're looking for from a Spielberg homage. If you just want to see a movie which fetishises small town childhoods, bicycles, valleys and lights in the sky, you're in luck - add a point onto the score at the end of this review. If you've never seen an early Spielberg before, you might enjoy Super 8's broad-strokes storytelling and the unfamiliarity of having children at the heart of a movie which at least pretends to be aimed at an adult audience.

If you're at one of the further ends of the scale, however, meaning that you either definitely love Spielberg or don't, it won't be long before questions start popping into your head. For the Spielbergophobe (word), they will revolve around whether the movie has a point beyond a restaging of old movies you never saw the appeal of in the first place. For the Spielbergophile (word again), it'll be why something just feels wrong - everything appears to be in the right place, but with a tiny flaw that is somehow mortally distracting.

The best answer I can give is that as much as Abrams wants to be Spielberg, he isn't. Not by a long way. The correct elements are there, but he lacks the vision to put them together in the right way. For example, a common thread throughout Spielberg's movies is the child protagonist having to work around adults who do not understand them or what they need to do. That's replicated here. The difference is that in Spielberg's movies, the adults' mistakes were the result of love and trying to do the best for their children, even if they turned out to be hugely unhelpful.

In Super 8, the two father figures on show (there isn't a mother in sight, which probably meant something but I wasn't interested enough to think about what it might be) both act from their own short-sighted stupidity. The father of protagonist Joe is an obstacle because he is unable to express his sorrow in front of his son after the death of his wife/Joe's mother - in a mill accident, no less. (Remember what I said about Abrams and his clichés? Sound the klaxon!). Alice's father is an obstacle because he's a complete mess of a human being.

As flawed as his adults tended to be, Spielberg understood that suffering communication difficulties with your elders, and coming to understand that you were loved despite the arguments, was a vital part of growing up. In Abrams' world, adults are stupid people who get in the way - which actually explains a lot about Super 8's thinking, specifically why it often feels like an attempt to capture eternal childhood, where Spielberg recognised the ephemeral nature of the time as part of what made it special and important.

That said, the movie's strongest moments are those when the audience are given the time to watch the young leads just being children. Whether it's the baffling and intoxicating feeling of trying to chat up a first prospective girlfriend - the movie would have done better to contrast the otherness of the monster against the otherness of how a young boy sees the first girl he has a crush on, à la FLCL - or trying to organise the hopeless friends with whom both fun and constant misunderstandings are shared, the nostalgia factor comes through strongly, even if the nostalgia is someone else's.

The leads all give natural performances, helped by their characters being sufficiently loosely sketched (the insecure fat one, the pyromaniac, etc) that the gaps can be filled with their own personalities. The sequences where they produce their own Plan 9 From Outer Space are enjoyably ridiculous, filled with misplaced pomposity ("Production values!") and ill-fitting costumes. The anachronism of late '70s Super 8 filmmaking may also astonish any current young filmmakers, for whom the idea of having to wait a full three days to see their footage will beggar belief. It's just a shame, given how it gives the movie its title, that the Super 8 footage itself doesn't prove to be any more important than as a gimmick to put the children in the right place at the right time.

The appearance of the alien (whose design, when revealed, looks facially identical to every other creature to invade an Abrams picture) drags the movie down, bringing with it a number of uninspired scenes in which townspeople are picked off one by one, including the old 'teenager not hearing a massacre in the background because he has his headphones on' trick. It also means that Joe's dad gets a plot strand of his own, but when faced with Abrams' less than appreciative view of his adult characters, it is difficult to connect with the story of such an unsympathetic character. Yes, he wants to find out what is going on and save his town from the military, but he's also a complete so-and-so to his son. In such a child-oriented movie, the latter easily overrules the former. A spat with Alice's dad only reinforces how self-absorbed they both are and serves little purpose to the overall plot.

Perhaps I'm being harsh, because underneath all of this is an adequate enough movie. The music is familiar but conveys the right kind of wonder at the right moments, the cinematography complements the story's nostalgic aura while keeping the '70s trappings thankfully subtle, and did I mention that the children all give perfectly respectable performances?

My main problems were an ongoing feeling that there was little reason for Super 8 to exist, and that it feels like an enjoyable movie about childhood and friendship tied to a boring one about a monster - which, as I learnt later, turns out to be exactly how the story came together, according to Abrams. Like the Gus Van Sant Psycho remake which copied Hitchcock's original shot-for-shot yet still came out a shambles, Abrams appears to have assumed that the 'magic' of early Spielberg - assuming you bought into it - could be replicated by simply recalling certain themes and iconography. His failing was an inability to recognise that the construction is far more important than the materials: Super 8 is a nice enough reconstruction of an old family home, which would be all the more interesting had it not belonged to someone else's family. [ 6 ]


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