Super 8 – 2011
Written and Directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, David Gallagher, Noah Emmerich, Bruce Greenwood, Amanda Michalka
When seeing The Goonies at age 14, I remember asking myself what the hell Spielberg, Columbus and Donner must have thought of kids. Given that the kids in the movie were portrayed as a bunch of misfits, they made no qualms about pointing out (and in the case of Chunk, constantly belittling) one another’s faults and differences. The kids, like the horrible set, were anything but realistic and there was no basis to lose oneself in what could have been a decent adventure story.
Donner was a pretty good director for his time. The Omen, Superman (and an uncredited Superman II), The Lethal Weapon franchise and Maverick were all huge films, done smoothly and efficiently. Columbus was responsible for some huge hits himself. Some good, like The first 2 Potter Films, others, not so, like the Home Alone films.
In Super 8, the story, the script, the set and the special effects are all better than anything The Goonies ever approached. The primary kid actors, almost all first timers, are entirely realistic and, yes, much better. The difference, to this reviewer is as simple as J.J. Abrams. The creative force behind some of the best Sci-Fi post Y2K, including Lost, Fringe and the wonderful reboot of Star Trek, Abrams had a kinship with Spielberg in their respective pasts. As teenagers, both worked with 8mm Cameras to make their own films. Spielberg worked with straight 8mm and Abrams with Super 8. The story was a merger of ideas. Spielberg had an alien idea, and Abrams wanted to tell a story about the quest of making films as a kid. They mixed peanut butter and chocolate and came up with something on par with the best candy of all time.
For those who want to be spared any details, I will not ruin anything for you. Suffice to say the movie is a throwback to a simpler time when movie scores were actually made for the film. Michael Giacchino, whose previous efforts include Up (winning an Oscar), Ratatouille, MI-III, The Incredibles and the afore-mentioned Star Trek has created something as memorable as anything I have heard since Raiders of the Lost Ark. The sounds-cape helps to augment both the simplicity of the small town represented and then the epic action later on. He should pick up his second Oscar here, as the work is simply magnificent.
The kid actors, particularly Courtney, Griffiths and Fanning, give performances that are beyond their years and apparent experience. The amazing thing is, they actually act their age. It’s a tough thing to do in a business that pushes stereotypes over realism, when realism is what really heightens tension and the capacity for comic moments. The last time I have seen kids this realistic was the Catherine Hardwicke film, Thirteen. The important thing about both films is that the makers remember that kids are not caricatures. They don’t all have some super talent to have some amount of intelligence. Similarly, they are hardly smarter than all the adults in the film. Most importantly, friends don’t brutalize one of their number, nor do they treat everyone with excessive cheeriness. They act like they are comfortable with each other. It’s hard to pull off realistic kids on film, but Abrams does it here as well as Stephen King ever has in his books.
The story is a simple one, that flows well. Mixing the before mentioned elements of kids making movies and an alien story, we see moves foreshadowed, but not hammered to death. Chandler does a great job in an integral role, playing a person who is hurting, but still professional enough to pick up the pieces and be the one looking out for the town. His performance was key. If he’d been more dramatic and less curious, there would have been problems.
Abrams directorial eye is vast and wonderful. He has that wonderful trait of great directors like Carpenter from The Thing and Halloween, or Spielberg in Jurassic Park and Jaws, to show just enough to give you a real sense of fear, without wasting money on early, unnecessary special effects (see Michael Bay) just because you have the budget. It is a well placed sign that adds to the tension early on, more than showing what’s behind that sign ever could. Even later, with all secrets revealed, a simple breath of air in the face of the protagonist, over and over, does more for the story than any special effect. Contrast this with the scenes of domestic life with the Kaznyks, where short conversations have a dramatic effect at a crucial time in the film. Abrams uses every part of the screen to the fullest.
Super 8 is a simple, magnificent film. Nothing taken for granted, and everything feels like the most important moment in a young kid’s life. In this case, the young kid, around 14, one would figure, are those transported to Lillian, Ohio, while watching the screen.