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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Eddie Murphy is terrific in Imagine That as Evan Danielson an overworked financial advisor who is so immersed in his job he’s forgotten about Olivia his daughter from an estranged marriage. When he is given custody for a week and he gets too busy with work she retreats into her fantasy world imagining a group of princesses who as it turns out really know their way around big business. When Dad figures out his daughter’s special blanket and otherworldly friends have the magic touch for investment advice he becomes an instant superstar in his firm. But his newfound success soon sets up a confrontation with his chief rival Johnny Whitefeather whose presentations are often full of (Red) bull.
WHO’S IN IT?
From Dr. Dolittle to Daddy Day Care Murphy has carved out a solid alternate career as a star of family-friendly movies. But none of those previous works play to his overall talents as a comedian better than Imagine That in which he gets to merge his kid’s fantasy world with office politics for optimum laughs. The purely delightful premise in which Murphy faces off with skeptical business partners is perfectly toned to his talents and allows him to be widely appealing for both kids and their parents. As daughter Olivia newcomer Yara Shahidi won out over 3000 girls and is wonderful a real charmer who goes toe to toe with Eddie. Thomas Haden Church provides the perfect foil for Murphy as Whitefeather a guy who plays off a phony Native American heritage and spouts nonsensical advice like he’s E.F. Hutton. As bosses vying for Murphy’s newfound talents both Ronny Cox and Martin Sheen play it straight lending the appropriate gravitas to their roles. Nicole Ari Parker is winning in her few scenes as Olivia’s mom.
Murphy’s comedic tendency to go way over the top (i.e. Norbit) is kept in check with great results. He’s totally believable as a stressed-out businessman and his trip into his daughter’s imagination is handled realistically mined for the optimum number of laughs without sacrificing credibility. Credit for this goes to Karey Kirkpatrick (Over the Hedge) an animation director making his live-action debut for keeping cartoonish antics to a minimum and emphasizing heart and the father/daughter bond instead.
The scenes between Murphy and Shahidi are so effortlessly charming and real that you wish there were more of them. (One highlight is when father teaches daughter to sing Beatles songs which are heard throughout the film.) It’s the kind of thing Bill Cosby did so well on TV but could never pull off in movies. Murphy does.
Murphy is in top comic form all the way and is never better than when he berates Littlefeather’s hokey presentation then comes up with one based on his daughter’s doodlings that shows off the comic genius we haven’t seen in this actor’s comedy vehicles in quite a while.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Imagine That is a family film in the truest form and ripe for an outing with your kids. If you don’t have any rent one and go.
Well, the 1999-2000 TV season is finally, officially over. But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you have to go out into the sunshine or pick up a good book to read at night. There’s no need to panic. TV has not deserted you. Just think of summer as your chance to watch all the shows you missed while watching “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” or “The 10th Kingdom.”
Here's a look at the tube the week ahead:
Showtime comes aboard the miniseries train with “On the Beach” (8 p.m.-midnight EDT/PDT, Sunday). Armand Assante (“Odysseus”) stars as the commander of a nuclear submarine left to wander the planet after a catastrophic nuclear war in the near future. Based on the novel by Nevil Shute, “Beach” is not just scary scfi-fi fare. It also grows into a love story, as Assante’s sub picks up some Australian survivors (including Rachel Ward), and they all head off for the less contaminated shores of Alaska to go about the business of repopulating the species. The film is not rated, but it’s Showtime, so at the minimum expect "strong language."
Network television may not have abandoned you, but it has abandoned 16 other people, as CBS presents “Survivor” (8 p.m. EDT/PDT, Wednesday). The premise of this death-defying-docu-gameshow features eight men and eight women who actually asked to be marooned on a real desert island for 39 days. They are given only a few coconuts and bamboo shoots, with which they must build spacious homes, fully functional golf carts and a stage so Ginger can put on her little skits. Oh, wait … that’s the wrong show. The difference is, “Survivor” is “Gilligan’s Island” for real. And it’s a competition. As a well-fed, well-rested camera crew documents their struggle to survive on this genuine desert isle, contestants vote each week on which of them should leave. After 13 weeks, it will come down to one person walking away with a million dollars. That’s quite a concept. Seriously… Wow.
Also on Wednesday: "A Supernatural Evening with Santana" (9 p.m. EDT/PDT, Fox). The title kind of says it all, but if you’re wondering, it’s a solid hour of live performances featuring virtuoso rock guitarist and Grammy darling Carlos Santana, as joined by fellow Grammy darlings Lauryn Hill and Sarah McLachlan, Everlast and Rob ("Smooth") Thomas of Matchbox 20.
It’s a Wednesday-heavy week, as yet another potential little gem, "Clerks," debuts on ABC at 9:30 p.m. (EDT/PDT). This is an animated series based on the 1994 film of the same name by director/writer/comic-book-aficionado Kevin Smith. Smith (who also lends his voice to the character of Silent Bob) has griped that the network is dumping this long-in-the-works toon, but if the network is ready to get in the animation game, Smith might just be the guy to get the ball rolling for them.
And, finally, for you folks who like your sci-fi with a heart to go along with the form-fitting outfits, you might want to give "Farscape" (8 p.m. EDT/PDT, Friday, Sci-Fi Channel) a look. Produced by Robert Halmi Jr. (yes, the son of the guy who brings you network mega-spectacles such as "Gulliver’s Travels"), "Farscape" is not only a visual smorgasbord of otherworldly images, but also it's unexpectedly well written. For fans of the genre, this is the show that "Star Trek: Voyager" wants to be. Give it 15 minutes to hook you, and you’ll see that there is nothing cookie cutter about "Farscape." The characters are all well defined, and the plots are unique. This week, Capt. Crais (a cool recurring villain) kidnaps the "child" of the intelligent biomechanical spaceship Moya, which will one day grow to be a mighty Leviathan warship. See what we mean? Cool, huh?