Ryan Lee, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso and Riley Griffiths
Maybe you’re satisfied with Hollywood’s current studio output, but I’m not. I’m tired of all the sequels and remakes, the ever-more-indistinguishable animated movies, and the romantic comedies that are neither romantic nor funny. And don’t get me started on all emotionless CGI blasts of late — mostly lifeless superhero retreads.
Even when the movies are technically pretty “good,” like last week’s X-Men: First Class, there’s always this sense that I’ve seen it all before.
Yeah, yeah, I know I sound like the proverbial cranky film critic, but I really do think that, for all the great special effects, this is one of the least creative, least interesting periods in the history of American mainstream cinema.
But this week, I’m happy to report the release of one of the best summer films since last summer’s Inception: writer-director J.J. Abrams‘ Super 8, an affectionate and very clever homage to the early films of Steven Spielberg, and to the power of filmmaking in general.
See, Hollywood? You can make good summer movies when you put your mind to it!
But unlike Inception, which looked into the future, Super 8 is decidedly retro in setting, look, and theme.
It tells the story of a group of kids who, in 1980, are
filming a zombie movie. While “on location” one night at an abandoned
train station, they witness a strange event — one that becomes stranger
still when they accidentally catch something mysterious on film.
other strange things begin happening in town, and as other folks come
to investigate, the kids continue to shoot their movie, taking
advantage of the real-world events and incorporating them into the film.
(And be sure to stay through to the final credits to see the result of
all their efforts — one that’s both hilarious and genuinely touching.)
But a big part of this film’s power is its ability to surprise. Unfortunately, a
lot of critics will spoil the mystery by revealing the plot.
Not me. In terms of plot, that’s all you’re getting from me. And if you’re planning on going to this movie, I’d strongly advise you not to read any of those other reviews either.
Ron Eldard, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney and Kyle Chandler
Super 8 works on two levels: on one, it’s a pure popcorn movie involving a mystery to be solved and lessons for the kids to learn. On this level, it’s quite good, with affecting characters, clever twists, and great visuals: the kids look like real kids, for example. We know we’re in the hands of a good, efficient storyteller from the movie’s opening scene, where a factory worker is replacing the number on a sign, changing “789 days since our last accident” to “1 days since our last accident.”
At one point, the child-director of the zombie film they’re making tries to explain to his cohorts his new-found realization that for a movie to “work,” it’s not enough for it to look good: the audience has to actually care about the characters involved in the action.
It’s absolutely true. And in Super 8 we really, really do.
But as that ironic in-joke suggests, the movie works on another level too: almost every scene in the film is taken directly from a classic Spielberg movie — from the bikes and renegade military men of E.T., to the angry town council of Jaws, to the obsessive father and military secrets of Close Encounters, to the scary suburban underground of Poltergeist, to … well, to say any more would be to give away the plot, and I promised I wouldn’t do that.
(There is one big and very much appreciated change from Spielberg’s early films: the fat kid is something of a hero here, not the object of ridicule. And if the racial casting is too limited, at least there are no offensive Asian stereotypes.)
All this Spielberg homage is very obvious, but not intrusive. It’s basically a summer movie about mainstream movie-making that pays affectionate tribute to Spielberg, the man most responsible for the modern summer movie.
Even the ending, perhaps the most conventional aspect of the film, is an outrageous riff on a famous Spielberg movie (or, rather, two Spielberg movies).
There might be those who say that Super 8, whether they like it or not, isn’t quite as smart or as clever as Inception, but I’d actually argue that it’s even smarter: it’s a summer movie that openly and repeatedly acknowledges exactly what it is, even as it’s taking its genre’s tropes and clichés and assembling them in such a way that they still “work” as entertainment.
I’m sorry, but that’s a meta mind-bender that even Inception didn’t pull off.
Film geeks will want to catch this one more than once, but there’s something here for everyone. If you’re like me, it may even restore your faith in Hollywood a little.