Lights, Camera, Character: A Review of “Super 8”

It’s 1979. Four boys are busy making an amateur zombie film with their Super 8 camera and plenty of ambition. Joe, in charge of makeup and sound, struggles to reconnect with his father after his mother’s death and come to terms with the fact that she’s no longer in his life. But when the guerilla moviemakers sneak out to the train station for a night shoot, they’re witnesses to a train wreck that unleashes a mysterious creature into their small town.

That summary gives the boring bare bones of a story which, despite treading safely in conventional territory, manages to find a heart and soul in its script, its style, and most importantly its lead actors. If you’ve read any of the professional reviews of Super 8, you’ve seen the majority of critics compare it favourably with the early films of Steven Spielberg. With Spielberg not only given a producer credit, but also responsible for cooking up the story with writer/director J.J. Abrams, that’s perhaps only to be expected. The film contains strong echoes of both Close Encounters of The Third Kind and E.T., with a little dash of Jaws thrown in for good measure.

But the last label this movie deserves is “derivative”. J.J. Abrams, himself a rising star in Hollywood much like Spielberg was all those years ago, has more than his fair say in the story–he does after all have sole writing credit on the script. And more than a few sequences, such as a spectacularly overdone (and exciting) train crash, bear Abrams’ style. Not to mention the infamous lens flares, which are mercifully far less distracting and annoying than they were in Star Trek; one of them even adds a nice flavour to the final shot.

Where the movie truly stands out, however, is the performances. And the fact that these fine actors are in their early teens only makes it more impressive. Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb with such naturalness and honesty that it’s hard to imagine him playing any other role. He has great chemistry with Alice Dainard (played by Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota), who also holds her own to become more than just the love interest of the picture–a feat that can’t be pulled off by some actresses twice her age or older. The supporting cast of Joe’s friends aren’t given much to do besides crack jokes (good ones), but they mostly succeed in finding the balance between individuality of their characters and the unity of their friendship. They are truly an inseparable gang and you get the feeling that when they grow up they won’t lose touch with each other.

The film has a serious side as well, with Joe having to deal with the grief for his mother and a father (the deputy sheriff of the town) who doesn’t understand him or what he’s doing making a monster movie. Though it does veer slightly into cliche with those scenes, this is where the story performs an admirable tightrope walk. That element of the plot is given all the necessary dramatic weight, but no more; to give it any more would be an exercise in sappiness that would be painful for the audience. Just when you think the conventional motions are going to spill over into pure movie cheese, the scene stops at the right moment and you’re back to the monster storyline.  It needs to be admitted, however, that it also has what I feel to be the movie’s major weak point. Here we delve a little into SPOILER MATERIAL. But given that most viewers will see it coming a mile away purely because it’s expected to happen, it’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that Joe’s father has an eventual change of heart towards his son. But what we are waiting to see is how that happens. We don’t really get much of answer. We see the moment when his actions speak of the turning point, but how his thoughts and feelings lead him there is left untold. It’s unfortunate, and given the trajectory he goes through in the plot and the fact that he has no one to really talk to about it both prevent the medium from exploring it fully. On the other hand, it’s not the father’s story so maybe it’s appropriate to not see more of the shift. END SPOILERS.

A brief, unspoilery word on the film’s ending. A few have commented negatively on it, thinking that there should be more. I disagree. If you stop and think about it as you leave the theatre, what else is there to tell? With a couple of hugs and a holding of hands we are shown all we need to of the emotional storylines, and perhaps all we care to if we’re to avoid cliche. Like Spielberg at his best (and particularly in the above examples of his ouevre), the film ends at what it wants us to remember–the highest emotional point. It leaves us before the plot has a chance to deaden our reaction with a needless denouement. Michael Giacchino is given the chance to let his score carry a largely wordless conclusion and a beautiful final shot, ending on a lovely gracenote of hope and satisfaction.

Super 8 is a wonderful antidote if you’re feeling a little tired of the loudness and obviousness of the average summer blockbuster. Character-oriented and with a good dose of humour, it could stand as evidence that perhaps your plot isn’t what makes a story successful–it’s the way you tell it.

Hurry and see it in theatres before it gets pulled. If you do miss it, make sure you grab hold of the disc when it comes out. And stay a moment when the end credits begin to roll. There’s a nice little surprise waiting for those who do.

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