August 07, 2011

Super 8 (USA 2011)

When it comes to Hollywood blockbusters, what I mainly look for is heart and charm. Everything else (like direction, characters, plot, stars or special effects) is secondary to me and mostly can't be taken seriously in those films anyway. "Super 8" more than delivers in this category which is why I really liked it despite the weaker points it also has.

"Super 8" is a collaboration between two of the most successful and powerful people in Hollywood: Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams. The former has directed an unparalleled streak of blockbusters in the 80s and 90s while the latter, best known as producer of the TV phenomenon "Lost", only lately shifted to directing (after working on Spielberg movies very early on in his career). Neither of them was ever responsible for a real flop. Here Spielberg acts as a producer and Abrams as a director but there is never any doubt that this is a joint project. Why do I go into so much detail here? Because the two great entertainers (and their super-egos) are both the movie's great asset as well as its major problem.

The reason is that "Super 8" is essentially two movies (re)packaged into one: a nostalgic Spielberg science fiction mystery film with kids set in a small town (think "ET") and a modern J.J. Abrams monster movie with an affinity for technology (think "Cloverfield"). Which one you prefer probably depends on which generation you belong to. For me, growing up on Spielberg's films, it's a clear choice: it's the first part of the film, where the Spielberg touch is predominant, that would have had the potential to become an even better, if more sentimental, movie. The first scenes showing small-town life in the late 70s and the kids' enthusiasm for filmmaking - undoubtly references to the director's own childhoods - are very enjoyable and have genuine atmosphere. The young cast is also great with Elle Fanning standing out. The boys seem to be just playing themselves which is fine but she is the one that is really acting and touching our emotions.

However, as you might have guessed, there are not only humans in this movie. As soon as the monster takes over, we are back in J.J. Abrams territory along with (not-so-subtle) special effects. I'm not trying to say that he is not a good storyteller and has no eye for characters. It is just that I have the feeling that Spielberg, being a more sensitive director, would have handled the monster scenes and action sequences more delicately and maturely. There would have been none of J.J. Abrams' trademark but unnecessary lens flare effects and the explosions would have been more low-key. The film might have been less "cool" but as a whole, it would have been more coherent.

On the other hand, one must also acknowledge that the times have changed and maybe there is just no room anymore for Spielberg's kind of entertainment and his idealistic worldview. He may still be the better director but J.J. Abrams - the name says it all - is better suited for our cynical, technology-driven modern world. One proof of that is the portrayal of dysfunctional families in the film which remind us more of 2011 than 1979. In a "real" Spielberg movie, this would have been unthinkable. Nevertheless, it's the optimism and the aforementioned heart of the film that wins the battle against the special effects.

When two people quarrel, a third rejoices, right? In this case, it's Charles Kaznyk, the young "director" of the film-within-the-film the kids were making which is shown in its full splendor shortly after the credits start rolling. This short Super 8 film is the best thing about "Super 8" and makes you leave the movie theatre with a big smile. It's the film we all wished to make when we were kids. And it beautifully captures the fascination of movies and the excitement of movie making in just those few minutes. After watching it, quite a few kids will now want to become the next Steven Spielberg or J.J. Abrams...


Close encounter of the third kind: "Super 8"

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