Wednesday, 10 August 2011

SUPER 8, the 1950s in 2011

A mid 20th century film shot at the beginning of the 21st, drawn on the legacy of the 1947 Roswell affair. However, Super 8 is set in 1979, as a newscaster in a television set indicates, a non-obtrusive device which I have recently seen being used in Let Me In and Let the Right One In. 

The beginning of the film is beautifully shot, a close up of a boy's face, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), sitting outside his home as his father, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), the town deputy sheriff, mourns his dead wife in the reception after the funeral. That spirit is broken when Jackson speedily evicts Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard), Alice's (Elle Fanning) father, a connection is hinted between the two families by this act, we learn more about it much later. The attraction that Joe and Alice feel for each other is fed by the loss of both their mothers, what separates them is the feud between their fathers. 

In this way, Super 8 begins as a close and warm study of a group of early teenagers, intent in producing their own zombie (of course!) super 8 film, Alice being the lady in distress turned zombie, as it happens in life. Elle Fanning immensely enjoying herself walking as an undead. Wait for the rolling credits at the end, as the kids' zombie film is shown in its entirety, you will be rewarded– it shows not only incipient film makers, but also the range of roles that Elle Fanning can play, switching from one to the other as fast as the fluttering of her eyelashes. They go to a disused chemical depot near the railway line to shoot a key night scene between Alice and Martin (Gabriel Basso), directed by another boy, Charles (Riley Griffiths), whilst Cary (Ryan Lee) is behind the camera. I have to say, Elle Fanning's performance as she rehearses an scene for their zombie movie is absolutely superb. Then, a freight train approaches, they hurry up to get their equipment ready as the train roars past them straight into the path of a pick-up which deliberately stood on its way, derailing it. 

The kids survive the ensuing mayhem, just, picking up the broken camera and ran away when a rescue party approaches the disaster, a party formed by unusually aggressive military personnel. Next morning, the town has been taken over by the military, as the whole of the train, and its cargo, was run by the air force. Extraordinary things start to happen in the town, people, pets, kitchen equipment, start to disappear, setting the deputy sheriff Lamb against the air force commander in charge of the operation, the sheriff being one of those who evaporated. When the kids develop the film, the continued to run as the debris of the derailment crashed all around it, they find what was the cargo of the train. 

There is an air of nostalgia pervading through the DNA of Super 8, a caring eye cast on an era when adventures happened by kids mounting their bikes and roaming in the world out there, rather than obsessing with their laptops and smart-phones. That nostalgic look is transferred into the tonality of the cinematography, and the environment of small town America in the late 1970s. There is something of E.T. with shades of Alien in its making (it is not surprising that Abrams asked for Spielberg to produce it). 

The kid actors were excellent in portraying that kind of intellectual hunger to know, to find out about the world around us, a desire for adventure, for what is out of the ordinary, that hunger which most of us possessed at that age. I also read it as a homage to the beginning of the careers of film makers all over the world, to the nerds which are at the heart of cinema. 

Super 8's strength lays on the portrayal of the close knit friendship of the kids, clearly the young actors really hit with each other rather well. Elle Fanning, being the more experienced between them, while showing a more controlled performance, is clearly part of the gang in her down to earth way. While J.J.Abrams is very good at setting the tension up to a high level, the film weakness is Abrams's inability to integrate the different layers of its make up in a manner that holds together, particularly the issue of the abuse of power by the military as they take over the town, intent in preserving the secrecy surrounding its cargo at all cost, is brushed aside in the interest of the high octane disaster narrative. There are discrepancies in the plot too, and too many scenes which were added for visual effects, I fear, contributing little to the story. 

However, a good summer adventure film which touches some serious themes in a fun manner, with excellent acting and cinematography. 

Director: JJ Albrams 
Cast: Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney


It is 1979 in small town Ohio, a group of kids are filming a zombie film in super 8 when a train crashes with disastrous consequences (of course). The military cordons the area and refuses to say what was the cargo. Soon, mysterious events start to afflict the town... A nostalgic eye cast on the world of childhood. 

By the way, the kids really wrote, cast, produced and shot the super 8 film.


J.J. Abrams

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