Saturday, July 2, 2011

Reel To Reel: Super 8

Close encounters of the Kodachrome kind.

Going Rate: Worth full price
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, sci-fi violence, some gross scenes

Producer Stephen Spielberg had to see a little of himself in this film, which he produced for writer and director J.J. Abrams. Make that a lot of himself. It's Close Encounters Of The Third Kind mashed up with The Goonies and multiplied by Cloverfield. Spielberg has to be reliving the aspirations of his youth set off when he saw Lawrence of Arabia and knew he wanted to direct.

I can't remember anybody making Super 8 independent films when I was in junior high. By 1979, when this movie takes place, my gadget-loving father had already ditched our Elmo 8mm sound camera for a weighty Quasar VHS portable. It threatened to put grooves in his shoulders, and it cost a small fortune, but you didn't have to develop anything, and you didn't have to worry about shooting tight. So please forgive me if I find the concept of a bunch of 1979 youngsters focused enough to make a zombie-horror film with "production value" a bit beyond my grasp. I wonder how many kids know what production value means. I also puzzle how a kid from a large rambunctious family acquires enough money, skill, and quiet time to learn old-fashioned film editing. That could be a movie in itself.

But back to the movie I'm reviewing. It opens in a small Ohio town which has just lost a worker in a factory accident. The victim is the mother of Joe Lamb (Jason Courtney), who withdraws into a cold existence. His father Jackson (Chandler), a deputy sheriff, doesn't know much about parenting. He would rather shove the boy off to camp than let him help his friend Charles' (Riley Griffiths) moviemaking efforts for a film festival. Joe and Charles and their buddies are a studio in sneakers, complete with sound, make-up and special effects departments. I bet you they even know about three-point lighting.

As the kids are filming a scene at a train station, they unwittingly become witnesses to a massive derailment, and it's the most spectacular one I've seen on film since The Fugitive. What's more, in one of those derailed cars is some kind of mysterious payload. Once it's unleashed, strange things start happening all over town, making the kids' horror flick look like a family movie. As you would expect, the military moves in and starts covering things up, leading to the inevitable quest to learn the truth.

It's very easy to let a film full of kids get loud and out of control by themselves, without any effects work. Director J.J. Abrams keeps this from happening, though, and the film becomes a creepy, effective thriller until it hits a sentimental moment that evokes memories of another Spielberg film. I dare not say which one.

Overall, though, I highly enjoyed Super 8 and its love of, well, sci-fi movies. Abrams and Spielberg wouldn't have come together on this movie if they didn't feel a need to create a kind of entertainment that honored their roots. This film does a fine job.

As a bonus, Paramount and Apple have released a Super 8 app for iPhones, iPods, and iPads that lets you make digital movies with the retro look of those old home cameras. Neat stuff!

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