June 23, 2011

MOVIES: Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011)

It's the summer of 1979, and in a small Ohio town, 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) plans to spend the summer helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish making his zombie movie. Charles has somehow talked Alice (Elle Fanning), the prettiest girl in school, into playing the main female role, and since Joe's in charge of makeup -- and a zombie movie needs lots of makeup -- he gets to spend a fair amount of time with her, so he's happy.

The kids are filming at the train station late one night when their science teacher (Glynn Turman) drives onto the tracks, derailing a military train (in a pretty spectacular effects sequence). After that night, strange things start to happen. All the town's dogs disappear, only to turn up several towns away. There's a flurry of small-appliance thefts, and car engines are being taken. Most ominous of all, the military arrives, under the command of a martinet named Nelec (Noah Emmerich), who won't tell the local authorities anything about what might really be going on.

This is very much an homage to an earlier generation of sci-fi and fantasy movies, and to early Spielberg in particular (Spielberg is a producer of the movie). ET, The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are among the obvious reference points; those who are more devoted to the genre than I will no doubt spot others. As such, it's not the most original piece of storytelling; you'll probably see most of the major plot points coming well ahead of time.

What Super 8 does have going for it, though, is great style; Abrams gets the small-town atmosphere just right, and Joe and his friends are as convincing a group of kids as we've seen in the movies in a long time. The effects are impressive without being overbearing (though there are moments when Abrams' fondness for lens flares gets really distracting), and the acting is far better than we normally get in this sort of movie.

The child actors are particularly impressive. Elle Fanning has a terrific moment when Alice performs her big scene for the first time, and Joel Courtney, who's making his film debut here, is a real discovery. We haven't seen a young man arrive on the scene in such fine fashion since Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense.

Among the adults, Kyle Chandler makes a strong impression as Joe's recently widowed father, who happens to be the deputy sheriff in charge; he's one of those rare actors who always comes across as an innately decent person, and that serves him well here.

In a summer filled with superhero movies that bombard us with high-tech effects and little else, Abrams has remembered that while all the whizbang may be fun, it doesn't mean much without a story to give it some heart. And even if Super 8's story is a touch familiar, it's got a lot of heart and it's told well. These days, that's enough to make it one of the year's best movies.

No comments: