' ' Cinema Romantico: Super 8

Monday, June 13, 2011

Super 8

Summer is the time for sweet nostalgia because summer was once the time when you and your friends were free and it truly felt like school was out forever and days and nights felt endless and endlessly wonderful and you hung out and made crummy home movies or pretended you were various characters in "Predator" with your backyard substituting for the South American jungle and your bike was like escape-on-wheels and at night you listened to your favorite tunes on the Walkman you saved up all spring to buy and dreamed that something, anything, would happen in your small town, even if it was akin to one of those old monster movies you stayed up past your school-month bedtime to watch, and that if it did you and your pals would have the bravery and the belief that you could stand up and do something about it and that if you did maybe, just maybe, the lovely girl for whom you pined, likely from the "wrong side of the tracks", might just take your hand in hers and that if she did it would make mincemeat of whatever massive "thing" it was that had just overtaken your town because love overcomes all odds (even a suspect third act).

In Lillian, Ohio in a sugar-coated 1979 writer/director J.J. Abrams introduces us to a group of friends in their effort to make a homemade zombie movie on a Super 8 camera. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the auteur, Cary (Ryan Lee) is the "explosives" expert, Martin (Gabriel Basso) is the leading man - which is why off camera he's the most clueless and cowardly of them all - and Joe (Joel Courtney) is the makeup (i.e. Fake Blood) specialist, though he also doubles as "Super 8's" protagonist, a 13 year old whose mother has just lost her life as the movie opens and whose father Jack (Kyle Chandler), a local deputy, has essentially shut down and closed off from his good natured son. The four enlist lovely Alice (Elle Fanning) as their leading lady and she manages to sneak out of the cold, messy home governed by her alcoholic father (Ron Eldard) to shoot a scene in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere at the town train station. As they do, a freight train is seen in the distance and the kids hurry to get off a shot with the rushing cars in the background for "production value", but as they do the train becomes involved for very specific reasons to be revealed later in a cataclysmic crash that the kids barely evade.

Things in town turn weird. Dogs run away. Lights flicker. Items of all sorts are reported stolen. People vanish, even Lillian's sheriff, which leaves Joe's father in charge as he desperately tries to make sense of an ever increasingly senseless situation and attempts to deal with the super-secretive, no-nonsense Air Force Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) who has arrived to run clean-up for the government since the train belonged to them and who we know instantly is not telling the whole truth because, hey, he works for the government.

"Super 8" is a manifestation of the attitude, right or wrong, kids have toward adults and that whether or not our parents are fair and loving and whether or not our school teachers actually turn out to be fairly heroic, kids are kids and feel constricted and hemmed in and yearn to break free and to show these adults who ground them and tell them they're too young for any number of things that they can give just as good as everyone else. And that's what the kids of "Super 8" do as events spiral at a quickening pace out of control.

It's a shame the film's decision to let the kids drive the action for the most marvelous first hour is forsaken in the end to re-subscribe to the ancient summertime law that special effects and special effects laden derring-do must drive things instead. Abrams' screenplay improbably loses a handle on its indomitable spirit and strangely ignores the movie within a movie aspect it had carefully been nurturing, yet the graceful little love story it has crafted in those initial sixty minutes between our man Joe and our girl Alice keeps us watching and rooting and holds the movie up and even the symbolism-drenched shot at (almost) the end I didn't mind so much simply because while I loathe those sorts of shots in tough-minded films, well, in films like this one I cherish them so. The movie knows that mankind and all else alike just need to let goooooooooooooo.

The first song I fired up on my iPod afterwards was Cyndi Lauper's "Good Enough." Of course, it was. "Super 8" is "The Goonies" for those of us who have, over the years, graduated from a Walkman to an iPod. It wears its Spielberg-ness openly and proudly (it even keeps quoting that John Williams-y harp on the soundtrack) precisely because its primary intent is to recall those films of J.J. Abrams' youth. It is an action packed, fire breathing expression of nostalgia and as all great practitioners of nostalgia know, one of its hallmarks is to recall the best and overlook the worst, which is why I'm choosing to overlook the routine conclusion and remember the best parts of "Super 8." Because those best parts are really pretty fantastic.

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