Sunday, June 12, 2011

Movie Review: Super 8

Super 8 (2011)
Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard

This film has been hyped as E.T. meets The Goonies -- and this is precisely one of the biggest problems with Super 8, the big budget blockbuster produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Lost creator, J.J. Abrams. It's trying to be too many things at once and, ultimately, the end result is one big mess of a film.

Set in a fictional Ohio town in 1979, the film opens with the revelation that young Joe (Joel Courtney) has lost his mother in a freak accident at her place of work. Four months later, he's slowly moving on with his life and preparing to enter a kids short film contest with his three best buddies, led by "director" Charles (Riley Griffiths). Using Super 8 technology to film a zombie movie, the boys recruit Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the lone female role in an attempt to add a little emotional depth to the film. Joe and Alice aren't supposed to hang out together, though, as Joe's father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler) blames Alice's father, Louis (Ron Eldard) for his wife's accident. But the two feuding father's are inevitably thrown together when Joe, Alice and their friends witness an epic train crash in the middle of the night and get caught up in the government's cover-up of a really messy, loud, unseen creature.

The first half of Super 8 is enjoyable and holds a lot of potential -- but it just never delivers on the thrills it promises. The film is enveloped in nostalgia and, if nothing else, Abrams paid great attention to detail when it came to the setting and overall atmosphere. It felt like those 1970s Spielberg hits like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And, with the exception of a couple of modern words kids weren't likely saying in 1979 ("douche", anyone?), Super 8 is ultimately an homage to those classic summer blockbusters from back in the day. It would seem that everything would be headed in the right direction for this to be the major hit of the summer. However, Abrams tries to make Super 8 too many different things at once and, unlike Spielberg, he's unable to pull it off successfully.

Chandler, Courtney, Fanning and Eldard in Super 8.
One of the biggest disappointments is the "big reveal" of the creature that is terrorizing this small Ohio town. The whole first half of the film leaves you anxious to find out what exactly this creature wants and what it is capable of. Abrams builds tension by not letting the viewer know what direction the movie is headed in. But, once we hit the halfway mark, all of that goes downhill. Not only are the viewers left knowing very little about the creature, but when you do actually get to see it, you're likely going to wish that you hadn't. It's a combination of really laughable CGI and one of the worst "kid meets creature" scenes you are ever likely to see. Abrams doesn't pull off emotional cheese quite like Spielberg and Super 8 suffers because of it. The whole second half of the film, specifically the final 20 minutes, are painful to watch. The end result is that it's less of an homage to monster flicks and Spielberg epics and more of a major disappointment.

Unlike other uneven Hollywood blockbusters, watching Super 8 steadily decline in quality as the film progresses is harder to watch simply because it had started off with so much potential. There's a really, really great film in there somewhere, but it gets lost and muddled by a script that wants to be too many different things at once.

The strongest feature of the film? The cast. Newcomer Joel Courtney is a wonderfully natural young actor and he's more than capable of carrying the entire film on his tiny shoulders. It's safe to say we'll be seeing more of him in the future. Then there's Elle Fanning, an incredible actress and arguably the best performer under the age of 18 working in Hollywood today. She's all natural grace and charisma and her portrayal of Alice is that of a young woman on the verge of becoming an adult -- she still retains her childlike wonder while channeling her anger, frustration and loss as well as any adult would. The other young child actors are all excellent, especially Riley Griffiths as the bossy and hilarious director of the zombie flick. Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard do the best they can with their two underwritten roles as the father's of the main protagonists (you keep hoping to see more a connection between Jackson and his son, Joe, and Louis and his daughter, Alice). It almost seems like a waste that such a talented group of kids, gifted with great comic timing and emotional maturity, should be wasted on a film like Super 8.

In the end, there are both positive and negative attributes to this summer thriller -- it's just a shame that there is more of the latter. It's just further proof that a solid cast can't save the ill-conceived script of a movie with an identity crisis. It's a mess of M. Night Shyamalan proportions.