Sunday, July 10, 2011

Super 8 – Super and 8+ on a 10 Scale

Thank goodness Eric and Neil aren't into making movies.  They'd probably want me to play the monster!

      Super 8, directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, deserves to be a blockbuster hit with the excited attention that used to surround such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, and E.T.  Yes, I realize that Super 8 also pays homage to or steals, depending on your point of view, from these late 70s early 80s works.  (However, I haven’t read any review that points out that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series owes
an enormous debt to the many boarding school/young amateur detective novels of Enid Blyton that English children feasted on from the 40s to the 80s, especially in terms of plotlines, and to the black humor and bizarre details of Roald Dahl.  Enough of Harry Potter for now.  We’ll see about the final episode of that series in a week or so).  The movie plays with a number of themes from thirty years ago, especially the ambivalent sense of young Americans trying to establish their independence while simultaneously strengthening their bonds with their parents.  The look of the film almost perfectly recreates that summer of 1979, especially how it looked in movies.  The central Ohio factory town looks like the Pennsylvania steel town that felt like a major character in The Deer Hunter.  However, the setting is actually West Virginia and it looks like that or southeastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania.  There aren’t really hilly areas or factory towns in central Ohio so I don’t know why it’s pointed up as being the setting unless to underline the feeling that this is Midwestern, middle of the road, mid-America.  There is a line of dialogue that describes a specific object as looking like a Rubik’s Cube.  It’s an anachronism because the Rubik’s Cube wasn’t a phenomenon until two years later.  If it had referred to Lego instead, it would have been more accurate.  Plus, Rubik’s Cube is such cheap shorthand for a film referring to that period it really should be permanently retired.

      Okay, now for what really works about the movie.  Much of the imagery is both startling and beautiful, especially when the teenagers enter the monster’s hiding place.  Cleverly, the monster isn’t completely revealed until the very last scene and then in a long shot so that it looks much smaller and threatening than it is.  This also refers to the method in Alien, but it’s smart and it works.  A number of critics have carped about how a small town story about teenagers turns into a sci-fi movie.  Jeez, what have they been watching for decades?  This is an American movie-movie so of course it’s going to be a genre work.  Without the mysterious sci-fi plot machinations, most children and teenagers aren’t going to stick around to watch a coming of age movie.  I see very few people under the age of thirty at any independent film.  The mash up of the setting/teen characters and the genre plot works beautifully because it goes back even further to 1950s sci-fi monster movies, which played on the audience’s dread of the Cold War and possible nuclear holocaust and that was still relevant in 1979, as well as Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew mysteries that started in the 1930s and that “Let’s put on a show” ethos embodied by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland ten years later.  

      The terrific hook is that the teenage characters are making their own zombie movie and that armature takes us from the first ten minutes through the final credits.  My Mom warned me not to miss the final credits and she was right.  The film the kids are making at ever increasing risk to themselves shows up in the final credits and it’s both completely plausible (it’s not too good and the production values are both witty and obvious) and entrancing (the passion and talent for making commercial art are both present; they’re just not completely developed).  The teens’ acting works on a number of levels.  Elle Fanning delivers an astonishing audition scene as Alice.  It's akin to Naomi Watts auditioning in Mulholland Drive and making Chad Everett seem like he could act or Anne Baxter's take-over in All About Eve.  It’s Alice's talent that moves Joe (Joel Courtney) to fall for her.  Charles (Riley Griffiths), the driven director who is gutsy as all get-out about the film-making but not about the monster, needs her to be loud enough to be heard over an oncoming train.  What had been a moving scene between Alice and Martin (Gabriel Basso), as her detective husband tracking the zombies, turns into a screeching shout fest.  However, in the final cut during the credits, it looks like a pretty good, though stiff, scene.  Martin seems okay as an actor during the shoot and sort of nondescript when he’s not acting, but he displays real talent in the finished final credit movie.  Cary (Ryan Lee), the lead zombie, has the teeth for the kids’ movie role and they also look like those of the Alien monster.  He’s a little like Jackie Earle Haley back in the 1970s when he seemed like such an enthusiastic, coltish whippet.  The (actual) movie, not the kids’ movie, rests on Joel Courtney’s shoulders.  He delivers a genuine, unassuming performance and pulls off the really difficult task of seeming genuinely courageous.  It’s because of his eyes.  The camera connects with his eyes and that sets it.  In the kids’ movie, he’s uncomfortable and awkward and part of the reason is because he’s shot in profile.  

      Jean-Luc Goddard once said something like movies should be about the ‘agony of making movies or the joy of making movies.’  That’s where Super 8 comes into its own and it’s because of Abrams, rather than Spielberg.  Abrams’ work in TV and film has always had a self-reflexive element.  Charles is determined to get the movie made even though he’s furious with Joe, not because Joe likes Elle, but because she likes Joe back rather than him.  This triangle, because it is expressed with authentic emotion and such brevity of dialogue, is an example of why genre works in American film.  Just consider that it’s taken six films in the Harry Potter series to present a similar scene – same gender friendship threatened by a romantic relationship with a third party – which is a crucial part of adolescence.  There needs to be more fuss made about Super 8 because it deserves the buzz.

No comments: