Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Super 8 (Paramount, Amblin, Bad Robot, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Super 8, a major-studio production released in 2011 by Paramount in association with Steven Spielberg’s company, Amblin Entertainment, and writer-director J. J. Abrams’ company, Bad Robot. It’s basically E.T. meets The Blair Witch Project; it’s set in 1979 (a bit late in the day for the Super-8 film format, after which the movie is named; Charles found himself wondering whether anybody in today’s movie audience, especially the teens at whom this film was clearly aimed since its main protagonists are middle-school students, knows what Super-8 was, and in today’s age of cheap digital video the idea that you would have to shoot something on film and then have to wait three days for it to be developed — a jarring note comparable to that in Patrick McMahon’s memoir Becoming Patrick in which he recalled that, as an adoptee who had traced his birth family and was preparing for his first meeting with them in 1990, one thing he wanted to make sure of was that his cameras were properly loaded with film) and the central characters are Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths), writer and director of an amateur movie about zombies called The Case that he’s shooting with a Super-8 camera (that appears to be equipped with synch-sound capability, which would have put it at the very high end of amateur moviemaking equipment in 1979 — probably beyond the ability of working-class people in the steel town of Lillian, Ohio, where the film takes place, to afford) and wants to finish in time to enter it in an upcoming contest; Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), makeup man and all-around assistant on his project; and Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning, Dakota Fanning’s younger sister), the girl Joe invites to play a leading role in the movie because he’s got the hots for her (as does Charles) and also because she has a car — or at least access to one — which will make it easier to get to location shoots.

At the beginning of the film Joe’s mother is killed in an industrial accident at the Lillian steel plant (the town is fictional and named after J. J. Abrams’ own mother) — a piece of information we get in a grimly ironic scene in which a workman takes down the numbers “784” on a sign representing the number of days the plant has gone without an accident, and replaces them with “1.” Joe’s dad, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler, top-billed), is a deputy sheriff who suddenly finds himself in charge of the department when his boss, Sheriff Pruitt (Brett Rice), suddenly disappears — and the double whammy of having vastly increased work responsibilities and having lost his wife leads Jackson to take it out on Joe, demanding that he go to a baseball camp over summer instead of staying in town to help Charlie finish his film. Jackson also has a visceral hatred for Alice’s scapegrace father, Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard), and forbids Joe from seeing Alice — while Louis, equally arbitrarily, forbids Alice from seeing Joe, though naturally the two get together anyway (Joe even climbs up the side of her house and enters through her window), adding Romeo and Juliet to the surprising number of stories Abrams has ripped off for this one. The big turning point in the story comes when Charlie and crew ride off to a train station to film a scene in which Alice, playing the wife of the local sheriff, resists his efforts to send her away for her own safety while he stays behind to confront the zombies that are menacing the town — and when a train actually passes by, Charlie calls out, “Production values!,” and demands that his cast and crew hustle themselves into place so he can grab his shot while the train is going by, thereby adding a sense of authenticity to his film.

Only the train ends up in a spectacular crash that turns out to have been caused by Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), an elderly African-American who was a professor at the middle school the characters attended, and though they drop the camera and flee from the scene, eventually they get the film and turn it in for developing, though in the three days they have to wait a lot of other things happen. Cars fly through the air, things explode for seemingly no reason and a lot of the townspeople disappear, among other things, and Jackson Lamb gets himself arrested by military police after he’s asked to come in for an interview with the colonel running the local military base — and eventually the truth comes out: two decades before, an alien spacecraft crash-landed in Lillian and its occupant merely wanted, like E.T., to go home — only the army captured him and subjected him to so much testing and prodding that he developed a bitter hatred towards humanity. Dr. Woodward was then a military physician but was dishonorably discharged for “subversive activities” because he wanted to befriend and help the alien rather than detain and experiment on it; he got a job as a science teacher in the area (a bit of a plot hole since it was virtually impossible in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s for anyone to be hired for any public-sector job with the stain of a dishonorable discharge from the military on their record) and continued to try to contact the alien; in fact, that’s what he was doing with his pickup parked across the train tracks the night that the train came (and somehow Dr. Woodward, though badly scarred, survived a direct hit from a train on his truck!).

Super 8 is a beautifully staged movie; like his mentor, Spielberg, J. J. Abrams is a master of the grammar of filmmaking with a near-perfect instinct for knowing when to hold the camera still and when to move it, when to cut and when to let a scene keep running, and though cinematographer Larry Fong has a bad case of past-is-brown syndrome, he and Abrams deserve credit for keeping the monster mostly in shadow or as a black-on-black shape in the night sky and deliberately toying with us so we don’t get a full-on view of what the creature looks like. Abrams also gets good performances from his cast, both teens and adults — Elle Fanning in particular shines, at least partly because in the script her character is the only person on Charlie’s movie project who is actually able to act (we hear her co-star deliver Charlie’s dialogue with all the woodenness of a first-day drama student or a porn performer, while she performs the scene with a rich and thrilling variety of intonations conveying real emotion) — and one of the film’s most charming aspects is that The Case, the film-within-the-film Charlie was making on super-8, gets shown during the closing credits side by side with at least part of the credit roll.

There’s nothing really wrong with Super 8 except it’s the sort of film that borrows so much from other films you get the feeling you’ve seen it before even if you haven’t; it’s a film that impresses but rarely moves one emotionally, and for all his command of the grammar of film Abrams seems interested only in the most basic emotional conflicts. One gets the impression the reason this film is centered around middle-school students is not only that middle- and high-school students are its target audience but also so Abrams doesn’t have to deal at length with the higher levels of emotional complexity he’d have to depict if his central characters were adults. It’s also a film that’s somewhat confusing in its relationship to the Zeitgeist: the use of an Army officer as the principal villain can be read as Left-wing (you can’t trust the military) or as Right-wing (you can’t trust the government); given how long it takes to prepare a film these days, the movie world is always at least a tick or two behind the Zeitgeist and it’s rare that you get a pair of films that so convincingly reflects a change in the temper of the country as the two Iron Man movies did (Tony Stark as Obama-esque liberal in the first Iron Man and as Ayn Rand-ish Libertarian capitalist superhero in the second one), and overall it’s an impressive movie that entertains the senses but doesn’t really (except for brief shards of emotion in the Joe-Alice-Charlie love triangle, and the scene in which Joe and his father reunite) touch the heart.