Super 8 (2011) ☆☆☆(3/4) : A respectful homage to Spielberg films with nostalgia

 J.J. Abrams’ new movie “Super 8” turns out to be not as good as what it can be, but it is as good as what it sincerely wants to be, and I liked that. As a respectful homage with nostalgia to the films directed or produced by Steven Spielberg during the 1980s, it does a nice job while trying to tell its own story in a way a little different from Spielberg, who incidentally produces this movie. It is not entirely successful, but there are lots of reasons to like the movie despite my reservations about it.

 One of the reasons is that it captures the atmosphere of one small town in Ohio quite well, which rightfully evokes that of Spielberg movies. In addition, there is unadulterated enthusiasm from the young characters at the center of the story – the school kids who try to make a short horror movie about zombies for the film festival with their super 8 camera. Their condition is far less ideal compared to our digital age; it is 1979, and, as one character says, it takes more than a day to confirm what they capture on the film even in the best situation. And their parents rarely care about what they are doing.

 But their enthusiasm does not falter. They sneak out from their houses at night, and, at the some empty train station outside the town, they prepare for the scene they plan to shoot. Though the makeup and other technical devices(and the acting skills) are as amateurish as them, they are serious about their work, and, like any filmmaking processes, interesting things happen during the production, especially in case of Joe(Joel Courtney), who mainly supplies special makeup and special effect with miniatures, and Alice(Elle Fanning), who is recently recruited as the leading actress of their film.

 And then the massive accident suddenly happens while they shoot the scene. Right after rapidly passing the station, the train gets derailed from the rail in catastrophic scale. There are lots, and lots of explosions and crashes as a consequence(I have no idea about how that possibly happened), but, fortunately, Joe and his friends barely manage to survive from the accident without serious injuries. They flee from the scene immediately with the camera which shot the whole situation.

It is apparent that something escapes from one of the freight cars of the derailed train. Soon, the military quickly comes to the accident scene to – what else? – get the situation under their control and cover up their secret. Strange things keep happening in the town, including frequent electricity problems and a considerable number of missing dogs around the town, which is conveyed to us with creepy fashion in one scene. Joe’s father, a deputy sheriff, senses something fish in the accident. It goes out without saying that the military does not welcome his interest.

 I will not reveal you anything about what will happen next, but I am sure you can easily guess about that without much difficulty. The writer/director J.J. Abrams faithfully follows the footsteps of Spielberg movies; you can amusingly observe the familiar elements from these movies(the nuclear family with troubles, mysterious entity, government conspiracy…) pop out here and there in the movie. As a matter of fact, the result is like an eclectic mixture of “E.T.”(1982), “Close Encounter of the Third Kind”(1977), and “Goonies”(1985) – peppered with Abrams’ style a la “Cloverfield”(2008).

 In the juxtaposition between Spielberg and Abrams, it is interesting to see how Abrams holds his areas while imitating Spielberg movies with respect. His approach is more restrained and less sentimental. The mysterious entity in Abram’s movie has good reasons to be very hostile; what it does in its private place is certainly not a pretty thing to look at(don’t worry, it’s a PG-13 movie). Abrams is an efficient craftsman who really knows about how to earn our expectation at the start; the train derailment sequence is spectacularly striking enough to do that job.

 However, though it does a good job during the first half, the movie begins to show its flaws during its second half, which becomes relatively flat compared to the first hour. The story becomes more driven by actions and accompanying explosions rather than the characters. CGI is good, but they rather feel bland, especially after the entity in question reveals itself. The adult characters, the weakest ones in the story, usually do whatever the plot requires them to do. The conflict between Joe’s father(Kyle Chandler) and Alice’s father(Ron Eldard) is resolved in a rather unconvincing way. You can see from the start that they have a history between them, but it later turns out to exist only for driving the plot. And I could not ignore that there are several questions that left unanswered or unexplained.

 In spite of these flaws, the heart of the film remains intact throughout the movie. The story is not perfect, but Abrams gives us well-drawn main characters, and the interactions between them are the best things in the movie. They are interesting, and we care about them even when things explode everywhere. Some of them will probably work in the movie business someday – especially Cary(Ryan Lee), a quirky kid who loves making explosives. I am sure he will love to work in those loud Hollywood blockbuster action movies made nowadays.

 These characters are convincingly portrayed by the child actors including Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning, who have a small, precious chemistry between them on the screen. Looking more mature than her fellow actors, Fanning proves again that she is as gifted as her elder sister.

 In short, “Super 8” can be called, as many people said, ‘Spielberg Lite’. It definitely does not reach to the level of Spielberg’s greatness, but ‘Spielberg Lite’ with heart is a lot better than at least 80% of the summer blockbusters we watch every year. And I smiled at what I saw after the movie is over – I was glad to watch a SF movie which cares more about what its characters try to do than the expensive special effects.

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