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Judy Thorburn's Movie Reviews

Super 8

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3_Chicks_Small Judy Thorburn

Las Vegas Round The Clock -
Women's Film Critic Circle -
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Super 8

Is imitation the greatest form of flattery? That depends on the execution. In this case, whether he is a copy cat or not, writer/director J.J. Abrams (Lost, 2009's Star Trek reboot) made a movie that pays tribute to Spielberg and the sci fi blockbusters that defined his career. Spielberg is listed as producer and his recognizable, signature stamp is all over the film. However, the story concept of a young kid and his friends making an amateur super 8 horror movie is founded in Abrams' own early life experience as an aspiring filmmaker.

Set in Lillian, a fictitious, small Ohio town in 1979, we are first introduced to Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) a young middle school boy whose mother died in an accident at the steel mill. Joe's father Jackson (Kyle Chandler, of TV's Friday Night Lights) is the town's Deputy Sheriff and after the death of his wife has trouble connecting with his son.

Fast forward four months and Joe, acting as make up artist, is helping his best friend, aspiring director, chubby Charles (Riley Griffiths) get ready to make a super 8 zombie horror movie that he plans to enter in a film festival. The rest of his crew and actors include friends and fellow schoolmates, Cary (Ryan Lee) a funny kid with braces that likes to blow things up with a special affinity for firecrackers, nerdy Martin (Gabriel Basso) the film's star; timid Preston (Zach Mills); and newly recruited co-star, a pretty young blonde named Alice (Elle Fanning, Dakota's younger sister) glad to have an escape from an unhappy life with her single, irresponsible, and drunken Dad, Louis (Ron Eldard).

One night as the group of kids are setting up their shoot at a train depot, they witness a disastrous train derailment and crash. Although everything in the speeding train's path is obliterated, the kids are able to flee unharmed. While making it through the wreckage they come across something that looks like mysterious white rubics cubes. Miraculously, their super 8 camera is found undamaged and able to capture some footage that once revealed proves to be out of this world and somehow connected to the weird white thingamajigs.

In the meantime, as a result of the crash, strange things begin to happen. Dogs run away, people go missing, and electrical power outages occur. Enter the Air Force, eager to clean up the damage and secure a top secret operation (aka military cover up) that goes back to 1958 and involved a local biology teacher and scientist, Dr. Woodward. (Glynn Turman).

More than curious with what they witnessed and then later saw on camera, the youngsters begin their own investigation of the unusual phenomena, which turns out of be more terrifying than they ever imagined.

Super 8 is visually impressive and has great production value including design and cinematography. The horrendous train crash, delivered with spectacular CGI effects, is exciting and suspenseful.

The young cast who make up the stereotypical types such as the fat kid, the nerdy one, the leader, and the pretty lone female, are all terrific, especially Fanning who is following in the footsteps of her talented older sister and possesses the same star quality.

However, Abrams tries to stuff in too many subplots involving loss of a parent, a teen crush, rivalry, jealously and father/son conflict that are insufficiently developed and by the end of the film the messages of forgiveness and reconciliation aren't convincing.

Emulating Spielberg, Abrams piles on the schmaltz and in doing so employs  the same element that has always irked me about Spielberg's movies, and that is his technique of pulling at your heart and emotions in the most manipulative of ways. Instead of appearing genuine and real, they tend to come across as cheesy and insincere.  Scenes of kids and/or adults gazing upward with looks of awe, is another technique which has been overused.

With elements derivative of E.T, Goonies, Cloverfield, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and War of the Worlds thrown into the narrative, it is evident Super 8  lacks originality.

Of course, one can choose to dismiss these points along with several implausible (and there are many) scenes and sit back and go with the flow. Yet, I cannot forgive the statement of “Bad things happen” which, considering the comparisons  is ridiculous.

Granted, the film is loaded with Spielbergian trademarks and plenty of period nostalgia for baby boomers.  However, J.J. Abrams is not Spielberg and the film lacks major tension, heart and the sense of wonder. At best, Abram's homage to his idol is a valiant effort, but it falls short, especially given the disappointing, ludicrous ending. Super 8 is the title, but all things considered, entertainment value-wise the flick is merely okay.

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