Thursday, June 16, 2011

BuboBlog Reviews 'Super 8'

(The last time I reviewed a movie was more than four months ago — right around the time we had Alice. I suppose I have less reason to go to the multiplex these days when there's so much drama at home: hysterical sobbing, explosive diarrhea and running down the sidewalk naked. (And the kids are a handful too.) In any case, we recently found a great babysitter in Berkeley, so I hope to venture out a little more often.)

I can't help but feel like the target demographic for "Super 8." I was several years younger than the characters portrayed in the film — who turn 13 in 1979 — but I did my own 8-millimeter amateur films as a kid (mostly of the stop-motion variety). When we got a VHS camcorder, my brother and I made a series of movies in the sci-fi and horror genres ("Alien Contact," "Deal With the Devil," an unlicensed version of "RoboCop"). The production values were often hampered by a cat walking through the shot — something that was especially distracting when we were working with miniatures.

In "Super 8," six friends spend the summer trying to make a zombie movie. While shooting a scene by a train station, they witness a horrible wreck, which releases a monster more bizarre and terrifying than anything in their film.

"Super 8" has been called a tribute to B movies, but really it's more like an homage to the Steven Spielberg-produced films of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Those films were themselves tributes to the B movies of the 1950s, but they tried to subvert the cliches ("E.T." turned the notion of an alien invasion on its head).

"Super 8," which was written and directed by J.J. Abrams ("Alias," "Lost," "Star Trek") and produced by Spielberg, does a great job evoking the classic sci-fi films of the '70s and '80s. I just wish it had spent a little more time trying to find a fresh twist on some of the cliches.

We have all the usual ingredients here (a deadly creature on the loose, a sinister military commander, a local sheriff who doesn't believe anything is awry until it's too late). Abrams has a built-in excuse for parts of the movie being hokey — it's supposed to be analogous to the cheesy zombie movie the kids are making. Even so, these elements are the weakest part of the film.

The Air Force colonel is a two-dimensional villain, surrounded by ruthless underlings. The movie's alcoholic character doesn't just drink; he has a bottle of whiskey right in front of him. Then there's the alien, which feels a little paint-by-numbers. (It even makes that same insectile-rattle noise that every alien seems to make in movies.)

When we finally get to see the beast late in the film, I had flashes of the lame smoke-monster revelation in "Lost" or, worse, when we see the interdimensional "aliens" at the end of "Crystal Skull." It felt campy in the way "Goonies" was campy. Don't get me wrong — who doesn't like "Goonies"? But "Super 8" clearly had higher aspirations. I feel like "Cloverfield" (produced by Abrams, but directed by longtime collaborator Matt Reeves) did a better job of reinventing the genre.

That said, the whole alien plot is a bit of a MacGuffin and not worth getting hung up on it. The film's charm comes from the characters' relationships — and the stirrings of romance between 13-year-old Joe and a cross-the-tracks girl named Alice. Abrams gets all this just right: the dialogue, the small gestures, the ways people attract and repel each other.

I was happy to see the girl is named Alice, though it would be a low-probability name for a 13-year-old in 1979. Abrams also makes some surprising anachronisms for someone so detail-focused. The Rubik's Cube is mentioned, despite not being introduced in the U.S. until 1980. And a character has a Walkman, which also debuted in this country in 1980. It's only really odd because those products are so closely identified with the 1980s. You'd think they would have set off alarm bells for the filmmakers.

Again, these are quibbles. Despite a few flaws, "Super 8" barrels along toward a satisfying conclusion. We then get to see the amateur film that the kids made (make sure you don't leave before the credits roll because that's when it's shown).

It's the perfect ending for a B movie that's mostly an A.

BuboBlog Rating: 3.5 asterisks (out of 4).