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Thursday, June 9, 2011

'Super 8' Review (spoiler-free)

Who got this poster? The final we got was just the teaser with credits at the bottom.
This is Richard so everyone's clear on that fact; since we have other posts now I should probably start marking mine more clearly.

When I'm reviewing a movie I usually think about three questions. The first is "did I enjoy this personally?" The second is "would I recommend this to other people?" The third is "was it actually a good movie?" All of these qualities can sync up though they don’t necessarily have to; I’ve recommended plenty of movies I didn’t enjoy (Howl’s Moving Castle comes to mind) and hesitated to push ones I was thrilled by (Speed Racer). Super 8 sits somewhere directly inside of the triangle formed by these ideas: I enjoyed it, believe it to be a good movie but might hesitate to recommend it to other people. Click That "Read More" for...more.

Super 8 is great, if not excellent. It’s not as much to take in the first time as X-Men: First Class was but I think they both benefit from a second viewing. Super 8 has some truly memorable imagery and manages to absolutely nail the Spielberg elements without feeling like a lazy cheat sheet for emotional and thematic content. It’s a surprisingly earnest and sweet film though still finds some really ambitious content without violating the ‘late 70’s small town’ aesthetic. It’s fascinating to see a film in 2011 replicate the mood and atmosphere of movies from years ago, ones that possess such a distinctly identifiable feeling that can only be tracked back to their director. To say this is in the same vein as E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind isn’t doing a disservice on either side; Super 8 stands with those and other Spielberg films in a fashion so seamless it seems kind of eerie. Abrams is a sure handed as they come with this and really presents a beautifully shot film; any kid first learning about what directing is could pull a surprising amount from watching this. Everything comes together in just the right way from the cinematography to the editing all the way through the performances.

I think whoever did the casting for this movie should cast every kid for every film until the end of time as all the young actors are excellent; if there’s one gift Abrams undeniably shares with Spielberg in this movie it’s that he gets some stupendous performances out of kids. So much of the movie rests on their shoulders and they carry it with vigor, all of them making memorable impressions with some difficult things to evoke in the process. There’s one nighttime scene in particular that’s really amazing in its genuineness, letting the two leads effortlessly carry us away from the fantastic elements of the movie into some spectacular, purely emotional content.  The adults do just as well despite having smaller arcs, a result of the movie being told almost entirely from the perspective of the kids. The father issues present in so much of Spielberg’s work is present here as well, providing a surprisingly deep background for the characters while still maintaining a quick pace.

Setting the movie in 1979 not only benefits the tribute being attempted but also gives the film a great environment, one a lot more genuine than some other films established in the same period. That may be the greatest strength of Super 8 as it really conjured up the ‘feel’ of some of my faintest memories despite them taking place a few years afterward. There are almost no references to the period, such as all of the kids going to see Star Wars at the movies or something, but there’s enough to suggest the time period without using them; no mean feat when you could easily name drop the era’s pop culture and current events as shorthand to do all that work for you. Michael Giacchino’s score is also really notable though it’s not as dynamic as some of his other works; that’s not a slight since it fits the film like a glove and really shows that he’s one of the most versatile composers out there, not disappointing with anything I’ve heard by him.

The reason I might hesitate to recommend it is based on how I have no idea what people are expecting. A lot of the advertising makes it out to be more frightening than it actually is; the movie is still intense at times but I can’t say it’s scary in the way that the ads make it appear at times. The film’s success will be all about audience expectation since so much of the marketing has been based on teasing aspects without giving away anything, outside of the film’s early Spielberg vibe. I can see why they did it; showing too much of the film might deflate the ambitious mood that Abrams was recreating. Though as a result, I’m not entirely sure what people in general believe the movie to be like; co-workers and customers have given me thoughts ranging from it looking like a live-action version of The Iron Giant to it being a faux-documentary like Paranormal Activity. There have even been a few articles about how low Super 8 has been tracking in the weeks up until release, though I think people are jumping the gun with the thought that it’s going to bomb. Word of mouth may have to carry the film in the first few weeks, but that’s pretty much the case for any movie this summer that isn’t The Hangover Part 2. The reviews are coming in and many of them are pretty positive though there isn't a lack of backhanded praise (Corliss' review in TIME comes to mind where he calls it "the year's most thrilling, feeling mainstream movie" comes to mind). Some critics, likely hoping for an ad quote, are even comparing it to Inception due to it being one of the few mainstream movies this summer without a prior source material. That quantifier has never really been fair but there’s likely a need to move on to some other nit to pick since everyone grows weary of how much reviewers bemoan the number of sequels every summer, all the superhero movies or the abrupt inundation of 3D. To their credit, they do seem to be going light on the spoilers.

What you take from it may vary from person to person though some may be soured on expectations derived from all the secrecy to it. Allow yourself to be taken into the film and you’ll be richer for the effort. Super 8 is definitely worth seeing; it’s unique, emotional and powerful while seamlessly living in the trappings of one’s man style and the past memories of its audience.

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