July 3, 2011

Super 8

J.J. Abrams has crafted the ultimate summer movie: a pulse-pounding teenage adventure, a coming-of-age romance, and monster-in-the-bushes fright all at once. Super 8 is a clever blend of Close Encounters, Stand By Me, E.T., The X-Files, The Goonies, Jurassic Park, and The Sandlot. It may sound contradictory to thank Abrams for making a great summer movie with an original screenplay, and point out the seven movies I'm reminded of at the same time? In a year featuring FOUR superhero origin movies (Thor, X-Men Babies, Green Lantern, and Captain America), an homage is a breath of fresh air.

Five noisy teenage boys are filming their own homemade zombie movie, when a USAF train derails in their laps, unleashing an alien cargo into their cozy Ohio 1979 town. Soon some crazy shit starts happening all over town; our teenage protagonist Joe (Joel Courtney) starts poking around, while his dad, a sheriff's deputy (Kyle Chandler) starts asking questions too.

Joe is the heart and soul of the group. He digs into the mystery of the train crash while the Air Force sloppily covers it up. Meanwhile, he falls in love with his gang's newly-cast ingenue, Alice (Elle Fanning), while he is struggling to mourn the loss of his mom a few months earlier.

The nostalgia for the late 1970s is thick on the ground. Writer/director Abrams turned 13 in the summer of '79, and his love for his adolescent era shows. I'm only six years younger than Abrams, so I could appreciate the attention to detail. (My collection of vintage car and truck toys from that era is a testament to my appreciation.) Too many period movies can distract you by trying to set the scene with period-specific clothes, but the costumes in this movie were subtle and non-distracting. (The only detail that felt jarring is a brief Rubik's Cube reference- I think of the Cube as a 1980s item, and indeed, I looked it up, it was not sold in the US until a year after the movie is set.) The time period also frames the homage to the movies of that era, especially those of his producer, Steven Spielberg.

The Spielberg comparisons are unavoidable, but I am thrilled to report, that unlike every Spielberg movie I can think of, the father figure is not absent from the children's lives. It's the mother who dies the day before the movie begins, making for some tear-jerking, especially at the end of the movie. I really appreciated all the family relationships in the movie- Kyle Chandler's fumbling, non-parental relationship with his son; Joe's friend Charles (the zombie movie auteur and Spielberg/Abrams stand-in) and his sprawling family zoo, complete with parental power struggles and sibling diplomacy; and Alice's strained bond with her emotionally ravaged, alcoholic dad (Ron Eldard).

The teenage adventures are fun. The teens all talk at once, all the time (this reminded me of The Goonies and The Sandlot), they behave just like teenagers are supposed to react under stress- they scream, cry, vomit, and barely escape with their lives. There's a lot of children in peril, so I wouldn't recommend it for pre-teens. The monster scares are truly scary, even if the monster is a little too similar to the Cloverfield monster.

The photography is great, although Abrams is still over-using his "intentional lens flare" trademark. I loved the music, and wouldn't ya know it, it's my favorite Oscar-winning composer, Michael Giacchino! (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, Star Trek) The rock and roll music is also great- music supervisor George Drakoulias must have hacked my iPod for ELO, The Knack, The Cars, and Blondie.

I have to give this an A grade. I would see it again for sure.

At the Somerville Theater with my wife.