In this era of remakes and reboots writer-director J.J. Abrams is here to introduce a third option: the throwback. Though ostensibly an original work his new film Super 8 is meticulously designed to appear as otherwise. Its intent which it makes no effort to hide is to mine our nostalgia for the early oeuvre of Steven Spielberg to invoke our affection for films like E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and even Jaws. Should Mr. Spielberg be concerned? Hardly: He’s complicit in the scheme. The presence of his name atop the poster and his production company Amblin in the opening credits doesn’t just bestow credibility; it embeds the association in our memory making the bridge between what is and what was that much shorter.
Super 8 is set in 1979 – a creative decision which affords a measure of built-in nostalgia and allows the filmmakers to sidestep modern narrative nuisances like cell phones and Google – in the fictional working class community of Lillian Ohio. Our hero our embodiment of those prized (and I believe copyrighted) Spielbergian virtues of youthful innocence and wonder and unbounded curiosity is Joe Lamb (wonderful newcomer Joel Courtney) a polite earnest boy made all the more sympathetic by the recent death of his mother a steelworker in a workplace accident. Joe’s home life is rather dreary – his father Deputy Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is too immersed in grief to be much of a parent – so he jumps at the chance to spend the summer with his mates shooting a DIY zombie movie.
They gather one night at a local train station to shoot a key scene for which they’ve pulled off the minor coup of convincing a pretty classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the female lead. But the camera has scarcely started to roll when a passing train collides head-on with a pickup truck. resulting in perhaps the most over-the-top train crash I’ve ever seen on film an interminable sequence of ever-escalating vehicular carnage that would make the Final Destination folks gasp.
The driver of the truck that caused the crash is revealed to be the kids’ science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman). Bloodied but still breathing he delivers them an ominous warning: “Do not speak of this. They will kill you.” We learn who “they” are soon enough when hordes of soldiers members of a top-secret branch of the Air Force descend upon the crash site to comb the wreckage.
Shortly thereafter the town is beset by strange unexplained phenomena. Engines disappear from cars. Dogs flee en masse. Worst of all townsfolk are vanishing abductees of a creature glimpsed only in shadow and yet utterly terrifying nonetheless. We need not see the monster to know its fearsomeness: All of the scare scenes are expertly choreographed by Abrams the score shot and sound design fine-tuned for maximum menace.
Chaos and panic spread. Believing the mysterious events and the train crash to be related Joe and his pals decide to mount their own investigation. With each successive clue they gather the implications of the conspiracy become clearer and they are soon on the verge of a revelation that will change their lives – and indeed the world – forever.
Super 8’s genre spread is staggering. The film is equal parts sci-fi epic conspiracy thriller creature feature coming-of-age drama and teen comedy. (You can even add “zombie flick” if you include the film-within-a-film.) The mish-mash isn’t so much a problem in the first half of the film – Abrams is such a gifted storyteller that he handles massive tone shifts with almost laughable ease – but as the story gathers steam it has more and more difficulty reconciling its disparate elements. More than once in the third act does Super 8 teeter on the edge of Shyamalanism only to pull back at the last moment.
The film is surprisingly affecting but never in a cynical or manipulative way. (This is a minor miracle.) Abrams’ secret weapon in this regard – and easily the film’s best feature – is his cast of child actors who are universally superb. Their interactions feel genuine their comic rapport natural and unforced. Fanning in particular is wondrous. At this point calling her a “child actor” feels somehow belittling as her talent easily outpaces that of the majority of her adult counterparts.
Their efforts are largely betrayed by an ending that feels false. A hasty and belated attempt is made to turn the creature into a sympathetic figure followed by a denouement drenched in artificial sentiment with smiles and hugs and assurances both stated and implied that everything is going to be all right from now on. It’s an ending that Spielberg might have been able to pull off but Abrams is no Spielberg. Not yet.
Cloverfield may go out with a bang but it fades in with a whimper albeit for good reason. It’s the attack of…Exposition 101 a necessary evil never more so than during the movie’s beginning. We meet the characters with whom we will watch Manhattan get shredded like a piece of paper over the course of one night and more importantly the handheld video camera that will capture it all. Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is leaving for Japan and his buddy Hud (T.J. Miller) is charged with filming his going-away party and the goodbye speeches that accompany it. Hud keeps the camera steady on the object of his drunken affection Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) until Beth (Odette Yustman) shows up for a showdown. See she and Rob were lifelong friends before hooking up and sabotaging everything and it only ends on worse terms when she leaves the party hastily. With the exposition complete Cloverfield soon moves on to that attack on NYC shown so often and cryptically around the Internet. It is not a manmade attack--common knowledge for those who partook in the movie’s viral Web campaign--but further description might necessitate spoiler alerts and nobody wants that. This much is safe to say however: Savor the opening scenes’ relative quiet because your hearing may never recover from what is to come! Where Cloverfield shelled out some cash for special effects it compensated with a starless cast. Most moviegoers won’t recognize a single name or face of the actors who portray the six main yuppies on the run from God-knows-what but that helps this movie much more than it hurts. Besides no mere human could measure up to the real star that thingamajig terrorizing Manhattan. The whole cast comes off well however by acting spontaneously--we are after all supposed to believe this is as-it-happened footage and these twentysomethings were caught off-guard. Best of all there isn’t that clichéd hierarchy of roles we're used to seeing in similar movies; there is for example no true Hero character no Will Smith from Independence Day trying with guaranteed success to save the world. Stahl-David’s (The Black Donnellys) Rob is the closest the movie gets to that sort of banality but his quest is at least a somewhat realistic one. Miller (Carpoolers) as Hud adds some comic relief from behind the camera while everyone else--including Mike Vogel (Supercross) as Rob’s brother Jason and Jessica Lucas (Life As We Know It) as Jason’s girlfriend--is just the right amount of frantic. What producer J.J. Abrams (Lost forthcoming Star Trek) achieved off screen was just as remarkable as what director Matt Reeves achieves on it. Abrams an Everygeek god whose marketing savvy matches his film IQ embarked on an ingenious hush-hush campaign for Cloverfield that has simmered since its teaser premiered alongside Transformers--for a while the title was even a secret. The movie arrives with better-than-Snakes on a Plane Internet buzz and foam coming from the mouths of Abrams-philes everywhere. And director Reeves an Abrams crony from way back in the Felicity days does not disappoint. The incredible special effects reportedly executed under a very tight budget by today’s standards make Peter Jackson’s $200 million productions seem gratuitous--yet Reeves still evokes an indie/B-movie feel (thanks in no small part of course to the frenzied cinematography of Lost’s Michael Bonvillain). Reeves’ Cloverfield is whiplash-quick (80 minutes!) to the point and out of your head not long after the end credits; it’s popcorn cinema done almost flawlessly. And Drew Goddard’s (Lost Alias) script is smarter than it seems because he must keep the story contained within what is for all intents and purposes an impromptu videotape. That means casual moviegoers looking for escapism that is completely predictable might be disappointed.