Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 ½ stars) Dennis Kriz (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review -

Super 8 (written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced, not surprisingly, by Steven Spielberg) is a reminder that before science fiction began to “grow up” in the 1960s-70s with Star Trek, Star Wars, there were the 1950s era sci-fi horror flicks like The Blob

Watching 1950s-era movies like The Blob, The Thing, Invaders from Mars, etc in the late 1970s was something of a “Father-Son” inter-generational affair.  Whether my friends and I actually watched these movies with our parents on newly invented VCRs (or watched them, mouths agape or smiling ear-to-ear munching on newly invented microwave popcorn lying down on the "shag" carpet in the basement or “family room” while our parents were happily doing other things) when “dinner” came around and we all sat around the family table, these kind of films always gave _all of us_, parents and kids, something to talk about.  Cheesy, gory or scary as these films often were, our parents generally thought them to be “safe” as they remembered watching them as teens themselves in drive-ins or in sticky-floored movie theaters with lousy plush/satin-covered chairs and they brought back good memories.

I write all this because, I do think that aspects of Super 8 are somewhat anachronistic (that the military would come in and try to seal-off/occupy a small town to cover-up a “deep dark secret” is much more of a 1950s plot device than a 1970s one).  Still, I do believe that J.J. Abrams did this purposefully to produce a similar inter-generational experience today. Today’s kids get to watch with mouths agape (thank God, _not_ with 3D glasses on this time) a fun 1950s style horror movie with obvious homages to legitimate 1970s-era sci-fi films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, while their parents get to reminisce about growing-up at a time when the songs of ELO or The Cars did rule the airwaves (or were encased in beloved but goofy-looking 8 track cartridges); when owning a walkman (by today’s standards an almost dinosaur-like precursor, both in size and technology, to the ipod) was really, really cool; when dad (obviously) owned the _only_ motion picture camera in the family and these fun but noisy and clumsy devices used 8mm or Super-8 film that could be spliced at home (ah, “splicing” film with dad was fun ;-) to remove all the out of focus or “lens cap shots” from the film of “last year’s family vacation,”); and when truly _no where in the world_ was it possible to get a film developed (or really get _anything done_) “overnight.” ;-). 

As I reminisce, I remember that when I was in 6th grade (1975?), a group of us actually did film a necessarily _silent_ 8mm rendition of Jason and the Argonauts as an end of school year project complete with a friend’s “rubber/inflatable canoe” serving as Jason and the Argonauts’ boat and another friend’s fleece floormat from home serving eventually as “The Golden Fleece.”

Ah, what a time... ;-).  So it is clear to me that the setting and structure of this film was designed in good part to give today’s parents and kids something to talk about.

The film itself follows a classic Spielberg, ET-style, trajectory:

A group of middle school kids (6th-9th grade) from a small non-descript steel town in eastern Ohio in the late 1970s are playing around at the end of the school year, filming a (zombie) horror movie, that they are inventing as they go along.  There’s Charles (played by Riley Griffiths) a somewhat overweight and certainly somewhat overbearing kid who’s the ringleader and director of the production (Hey, it’s his family’s camera initially. And if he is rather overbearing, what else were the others going to do that summer?  He was the only one with “a plan” and the plan was fun).

There’s Charles' best friend Joe Lamb (played by Joel Courtney) a somewhat sensitive kid, who lost his mother that winter to an industrial accident at the steel mill and who “does the make-up” for his friend.  Make-up?  Well, it’s not exactly “girly make-up” that he’s working with.  He’s specializing in “gross make-up,” you know, to make people look like zombies.  Still his dad (played by Kyle Chandler), a deputy in the local police department is somewhat “concerned” and would really like to send his son to a “sports camp” for the summer.  Joe doesn't appear to be excited about that prospect ...

There’s Cary (played by Ryan Lee) who’s the kid who’s always playing with matches and fireworks, who therefore scares most parents and even a lot of the kids, but who makes for _the_ "perfect special effects guy."  He's also strange looking enough that he gets to play most of the zombies, etc in Charles' film.

There’s Martin (played by Gabriel Basso) the tallest and "put glasses on him" the most mature-looking kid in the group as well as one with some “stage presence” who therefore plays the lead actor/detective in Charles’ film.

There’s Preston (played by Zach Mills) who’s a “tag-along.” So he gets to “at least hold the boom” (be the group's nominal sound man) as well as play random non-zombie extras in the film. 

Finally, there’s the “love interest” Alice Dainard (played by Elle Fanning).  She’s a couple of years “older” than the rest.  Though still not old enough to have a license she can still “legitimately drive” (well, she knows how to, sort of, better than the rest ...) and as "an older woman" both Charles and later Joe have serious crushes on her.  A somewhat brooding teenager – she’s growing up at home without her mother and an troubled, alcoholic father, Louis Dainard (played by Ron Eldard) – she nonetheless as an innate (dare one say, “God given” talent) to “light-up” to _perfectly_ fit into _any_ role that she’s given by Charles (to the surprise and jaw dropping admiration of _everyone_ of the others in Charles' group, hence why _everyone_ really gets to have a real crush on her).  Charles casts her as Martin's wife in his picture, but she also plays a really awesome zombie afterwards ;-).

So this group finds itself filming a scene for Charles’ movie late one early summer night (a day or two after school let out) at a rather abandoned train station some ways outside of town (Alice was needed to drive them to the location).  They are filming a tear driven scene where Alice expresses her concern for "husband"/detective Martin’s safety and Martin in turn is trying to convince "his wife" Alice to leave town while he brings the town’s “zombie threat” under control.

Suddenly, a mysterious train is suddenly seen speeding along the tracks toward them.  Not wanting to waste the potential shot (hey it's "production value" and let's face it, with _no money_, scrapy/imaginative/'resourceful" Charles has to "take" whatever shot that drops into his lap), Charles has the two redo this tear-jerker scene while the train speeds by.

As the train approaches the station, however, a pickup truck suddenly appears and its driver appears to purposefully put the pickup directly in the way of the oncoming train.  A HUGE accident and train-derailment ensues, which gets caught on the kids’ film.  Much ensues afterward... ;-)

Parents, the PG-13 rating is appropriate.  There is some marijuana drug use and heavy drinking alcoholism portrayed among the older teen and 20-something adults in the film (but not among middle school heroes of the movie).   Nevertheless, I do believe that Super 8 is a movie that a whole family would enjoy.  The really young kids will have most of the movie pass them by, while the middle-school and above kids/teens would probably enjoy it quite a bit.  And parents and even grandparents will be able to reminisce about what it was like “back in the day...”

Finally, if this movie would inspire a few teens to pick-up their digital cameras and attempt making a movie or two with their friends over the summer, then certainly this movie would have more than fulfilled its "mission."  Happy dreaming! ;-)

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