Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Movie Review: Super 8

The Magic 8 Ball Knows All
(Minor Spoilers)

      Ask the magic eight ball a question: who is J.J. Abrams? J.J. Abrams is a purveyor of mystery and suspense. It is certain. But a more arresting realization can be gleamed from the co-creating mind of Lost. Beyond the scope of fortune-telling toys, I posit this belief: J.J. Abrams is a spectacular visual artist, a storytelling savant who wields his magical wand under the unique rubric of filmmaking. He is a tenured, world-renowned professor, the Indiana Jones of imagination, and he teaches a master's level course. He calls it, brashly but befittingly, the art of a movie. Beyond a terrifying waiting list, a number that's equivalent to the legion of Miami Heat haters, what does that all mean exactly? 
      Well, Professor Abrams' students show up, chew bubblegum, and then unleash ass-kickings when they run out of bubblegum. Actually, let's dismiss the ballyhoo. Instead, pretend your name's Marty McFly, and let your mind travel back in time, Hearken back to the late 1970's...even better, the crazy 80's. Before you digest the appalling atmosphere otherwise known as 80's fashion, you have to accept a few conditions. Your cinematic conscious is still unrefined. Your threshold for imagery, breathtaking and awe-inspiring, is unrewarded (or at least fleeting). But suddenly, something supernatural happens. Without provocation, your eyes are awakened and exhilarated to a magnificent force. He's not an extra-terrestrial being. And his name's not Michael Jordan. You have just been formally acquainted with Mr. Steven Spielberg. Now, please brace yourself because you just caught a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. Before you can pick up your jaw, shriek at the sight of your ghastly sun-kissed hairstyle, and bemoan the existence of your popped collar, the sagacious words of Yoda begin to penetrate your senses. "Find you, a startling answer will. Know what I'm talking about, do you?" And with that shroud of wisdom, the never-plain, but always-profound Jedi Master strikes again. His point: J.J. Abrams is synonymous with genius, not because he is willing to absorb risk or infiltrate mystery, but because he understands that movies, at their deepest core, are visual stories.
      Movies foster discussion, instill audiences with the magic of discovery, and occupy the deepest recesses of imagination. Movies that matter, specifically those that fill the void of real world repression, require a surgical command. The director is the doctor. And like any surgeon, there's a litany of responsibilities. They have to construct characters that are identifiable, provocative or profound; depth surpasses hollowness every time. They have to tread the twists and turns (or both) of extraordinary journeys. They have to imbue their environments with an almost-visual dynamism; any combination of colors, vibrant personalities or supernatural pretensions. They have to orchestrate meaningful action. Above all else, they have to vigorously assault one's suspension of disbelief.
      Well, Mr. Abrams latest movie remembers, and most importantly, invokes these universal tenets. He strides for that ephemeral feeling, a visceral combination of wonder and awe. And he achieves it. Super 8 is the perfect kid's spectacle. It's an encapsulation of my-childhood-before-my-childhood, held together from the moldings of an original story; a story that's decorated with past architectural styling cues (the Spielberg influence), contemporary summer blockbuster furnishings (Hollywood's a business), and suffused with state-of-the-art special effects (Spielberg + Abrams = WOW). Quite remarkably, Super 8 is an injection of youth, a magical reversal of the age-altering effects from the fortune-telling machine in the movie Big. I'm sorry Tom; I don't want to be big. I just want to be a kid...for this one time.

      Super 8 has a simple story. It's fitting because Mr. Abrams transports us to simpler times. The year is 1979 and Facebook, Twitter and I-'fill in the blank' weren't part of the lexicon. Walkmans were the cutting-edge marvels of technology. As such, the mere ownership of one would invoke this kind of rebuke from a local sheriff: "Just what we need. Kid's walking around with stereos. It's a slippery slope, my friend." Yes, Super 8 harkened back to the simplest of times. And anti-drug messages were seldom heeded. 
      At it's core, Super 8 is a story about young, impressionable filmmakers; curious youths full of piss and vinegar. They're straddling the line of rebellion, but they're also yearning for fulfillment. Most importantly, they're striving to reach an apex of creative achievement, searching for that fleeting moment of genuine discovery; discovery that's born from inspiration. Perhaps, such an attainment is no coincidence; Super 8, after all, is Abrams love letter to Spielberg. Like Spielberg, Abrams unleashes a cataclysmic event (a spectacular train crash). And in even greater Spielbergian fashion, that event becomes the story's mysterious stimulus from which the dramatic, science-fiction elements aggressively expound. Hop on the train and stay aboard until its ultimate climax because the story does not end when the train meets its demise; it only begins.
      Super 8 should be titled: "Abrams homage to Spielberg." And because we all adore Spielberg, it becomes an homage to moviegoers of yesteryear. J.J. Abrams wields Cupid's bow, and then shoots the arrow (Super 8) at all filmmakers and movie lovers, whose imaginations were conceived at a young age. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his medley of friends share an immense love for filmmaking. Their passion evokes moments of genuine fascination. It doesn't feel contrived. It's not stifling. Their interactions are organic and believable. Their friendship is marked by a shared sensibility, not a plot device. There's Charles (Riley Griffiths), the overbearing director that's obsessed with "production value," and strikes me as a more sophisticated version of Chunk from The Goonies. There's Joe, the main protagonist and make-up artist/special effects specialist. There's Cary (Ryan Lee), the zombie-loving cameraman and pyromaniac. There's Alice (Elle Fanning), the main actress and the object of dualling crushes. There's Preston (Zach Mills), the lighting guy and Martin (Gabriel Bosso), the main actor. So, yes, Super 8 is a movie within a movie. It's an affectionate message to Steven Spielberg, to young filmmakers, to kids, and to adults, who, at least for two hours, want to remember what being a kid was like.

      The relationships among the kids represent its heart and soul. And thankfully, the acting does not reflect youthful inexperience or adolescent inefficiency. Joel Courtney's acting debut is sensational. He maneuvers the central role with such poise and charisma, a shocking revelation given the dearth of his big screen exposure. Elle Fanning, who's older sister embodies the very fabric of the dynamic youth performer, emerges as a bona fide female lead. Ryan Lee provides comedic relief, which is a nice respite given the inanity of Riley Griffeths' obsession with the word "mint" (it's nitpicking, but it's a reminder of why this is a kid's movie). The final striking performance comes from the Coach, Mr. Kyle Chandler. He treads the layered constituency of a man who's conflicted by his profession (as a police officer), his relationship with his son Joe, his fractured family dynamics and his responsibility to his town. He is charismatic and evocative despite his turbulent, very manipulative screen time; this is a movie for kids, adults are of secondary concern. 
      Imagine a movie whose very design is antithetical to the titan grips of contemporary Hollywood enterprises; a movie where state-of-the-art special effects are used purposefully, not wantonly; where an original story is made in 2-D, not 3-D, where the characters and their relationships eclipse the prominence of the creatures and the big bangs. Well, you don't have to imagine much further. Super 8 is the quintessential embodiment of that movie. Its originality matches its purposefulness. 
      Michael Giacchino's score is a terrific ally for Abrams' specific narrative engagement. The music invites nostalgic memories, doomsday scenarios and youthful sensibilities. In a way, Abrams offers to today's generation of moviegoers, an illusory snippet of what it was like for those before-and-during my generation to go to a theater and experience something memorably cinematic, a movie carved from deep imagination and ingenuity. Quite simply, Super 8 is a movie reminiscent of Spielberg, his wondrous imagination, his great ingenuity.
      Like his mentor, J.J. Abrams is firmly on the cusp of, what I'll colorfully dub, continual, transcendent movie-making. He has proven adroitness across diverse cinematic landscapes: rebooting a beloved franchise (Star Trek), masterminding a groundbreaking television series (Lost), displaying an uncanny marketing adeptness (Cloverfield), and most recently, orchestrating the perfect summer movie (Super 8). Directors are custodians of ideas and images. Their direction is pivotal to the movie. When directors experience higher echelons of success (in the form of box office gross or critical acclaim), their control and their credibility soar to advantageous heights. Christopher Nolan is an established cinematic commodity. He has complete, irrevocable control over his craft; if he wants to, he can direct Mike Tyson in a romantic comedy opposite Meryl Streep. His clout is that indefatigable. Well, Abrams may have just joined Mr. Nolan. To what heights he takes his maturing directorial flourishes, we shall see: the Star Trek sequel may give us the answers. I just shook the magic eight ball. Its answer: Without a doubt.

9 out of 10


  1. Matty, I know I've said this before, but let me say it again - your writing is exceptional and very inspiring. You're the best reviewer I know. Period. :)
    I'm watching "Super 8" this Thursday, and I couldn't be more thrilled. You've said so many things without spoiling a thing, and that's how great reviewers do it. :)

  2. I'm glad you liked the film, Matty, I know how much you wanted to see it!

  3. I heartily echo George's opinion on your reviewing skills. You write more than a review, you compose film lessons, teaching us all something about the art of cinema.

    And I wholeheartedly concur on your assessment of JJ's filmmaking and Super 8. What a great summer ride. Like seeing ET or Jurassic Park for the first time.

  4. you have no idea how happy this makes me to hear you/read you say this. I saw a brief preview for this movie a while back with my brother, and we were both mesmerized, couldn't wait to see it.

    also, just loved this whole post, esp. the reference to the Miami heat. snicker snicker.

  5. @ Nebular

    You are much too kind, my friend! But I'll accept your praise, every word of it, lol.

    Awesome. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I cannot wait to read your thoughts!

    And spoiler-free reviews are the way to go. Sometimes, and yes, unfortunately to prove a point in my review, I've broken that rule. But never egregiously or maliciously. Rule of thumb: assume those reading your review have not seen the film.

    @ Dezmond

    Yes, this was one of the summer films I was eagerly awaiting. It lived up to my hype, and then some. I hope you watch it at some point.

  6. @ Melissa

    Thank you! You are also a very kind person. And the check is in the mail, hehe.

    My thoughts exactly. It is the "perfect summer ride." Abrams brought his A game. And he spoiled us movie fans in the process. I can only imagine my level of enthusiasm if I watched this in my younger days. I'd probably say: that was "mint."

    @ mshatch

    Oh, that's music to my ears. Thank you very much. And thanks for stopping by. I really appreciate your input.

    Watching this movie with your brother is the way to go. If you were mesmerized by the preview, then the movie will blow your mind. It is a beautiful blockbuster, two words that don't often go together (even tougher for me to write, lol).

    I am firmly entrenched in the HATE THE HEAT bandwagon. I am a Knicks fan. More importantly, I am a fan of any team that plays against the Heat. So happy Dallas beat them in the Finals! Hopefully, my Knicks make gigantic strides and knock the whiny Heat off their pedestals next season (assuming the lockout is over or never happened).

  7. I seriously can't agree more with your expertly written review, Matt! 9 out of 10 is a very solid score and I think you even love the film more than I did :)
    Super 8 perfectly captures the suspense and feeling of Spielberg's awesome classic sci-fi movies. And that's what make it one super summer movie.

  8. Thanks Jaccs!

    I enjoyed your review too. An 8 was also a fair score.

    Exactly. A facet of the movie that I didn't discuss with any detail in my review was the exceptional pacing. And it was that edge of your seat tension, something characteristic of Spielberg's brilliant sci-fi classics (Close Encounters, E.T.) that made Super 8 such a fun movie experience.

  9. Great review. I echo everyone's sentiments and I really like your writing style.

  10. Thanks for the comment and the support! Much appreciated :)

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