The Infinite Homage

Super 8 (June 10, 2011)     4/5

Written & Directed by J.J. Abrams (Paramount Pictures)

The early films of Steven Spielberg are some of the fondest moments ever captured on celluloid.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and years later, E.T. and Jurassic Park, not only provided thrilling science-fiction storytelling, but also uniquely human stories, often revolving around the wonder and innocence of childhood.  And who better to carry the torch than J.J. Abrams, the creator of television’s Lost, the producer of monster flick Cloverfield, and the director of Mission: Impossible III, as well as the even more fantastic Star Trek reboot?  This is the first film written by Abrams himself, an homage to those films of Spielberg that affected so many children growing up, and even inspired many of them to become filmmakers.  So is the case with Abrams, as well as the reason Spielberg produced this film and helped develop the story.

We are taken back to 1979, where 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courntey), has just lost his mother in a factory accident.  He is now left alone with his loving, police deputy father (Kyle Chandler).  Four months later, Joe hangs around with his amateur filmmaker friends (circa The Goonies and Stand by Me), and somehow convinces  one of the most popular girls in school, Alice (Elle Fanning), to be in their next movie –  a zombie film shot on Super 8 film, that the boys hope to enter in a contest.  While filming a scene at the local train station, something incredible happens.  Someone drives a car onto the tracks, causing the train to derail and crash, in one of the most spectacular special effects sequences in recent memory (the first thing Spielberg ever filmed was blowing up his own model train set).  As the kids run to safety, the dropped camera is still running.  Soon, there are many strange occurrences.  Dogs run away, metallic objects go missing, and the kids’ small town of Lillian, Ohio is soon overrun with military personnel.  It is then up to the little people, along with their accidental footage, to solve the mystery.

Abrams has such a knack for old-school storytelling and writing likeable characters that the film is nothing less than an instant joy.  Fast-paced, funny, and consistently thrilling, it never ceases to entertain.  But above all, it evokes that sense of wonder that Spielberg produced within his own films.  That feeling of childhood rushing back to greet us all.  It is tremendously effective, but it would be a lie to say a recreation at this level doesn’t offer a slight aura of artificiality.  Some scenes and dialogue seem to be directly copied from Spielberg’s films, and the story, though delightfully told, is never quite original.  But at least it has a story to tell, unlike so many summer blockbusters.  It embraces the common narrative, rather than trashing it with special effects and 3D.  Instead, the phenomenal visuals are used to enhance the story, and are often used sparingly to arouse suspense and provide for a greater sense of awe once they appear.  Meanwhile, the child actors are fantastic.  I don’t doubt that many have bright futures ahead of them.

Although the film’s message of forgiveness and letting go seems a nit obvious, it is conveyed respectfully through these wonderful actors, and the dazzling storytelling ability of Abrams and Spielberg.  It is both an emotional and thrilling, visual experience.  But most of all, it is about the affect cinema can have on the kid in all of us, and how the imagination can be so rivetingly captured.  Like Spielberg did for Abrams, Super 8 makes you want to go out, buy a camera, and create that feeling on your own.

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