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Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8

Abrams' Tribute to the Master of Summer Movies

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Every mastermind grew up admiring a mastermind. For J.J. Abrams, who conceived the convolutions of the culty “Lost” series and revived Star Trek for the 21st century, Steven Spielberg was the model mastermind, a director who found the uncanny among ordinary people and with a sharp feel for the roller coaster thrill of cinema.

He invented the summer blockbuster and Abrams hopes to score this season's greatest popcorn movie with his tribute, Super 8.

Spielberg co-produced Super 8 and his inspiration is apparent almost everywhere. Moving with swift diligence, the setting is established in the first frame: a steel town in Ohio in the late '70s along with the fact of someone's death. Next scene: the funeral wake introduces Joe (Joel Courtney), whose mom died in the plant accident; Joe's dad (Kyle Chandler), an angry-sad deputy sheriff; and a gaggle of Joe's dorky middle school pals, with whom he is making a zombie flick on a Kodak Super 8. The show must go on, especially to encourage the proximity of its reluctant star, Alice (Elle Fanning), the hottie from the bad side of the tracks. While filming their monster mash alongside the rail line, a government train derails when a pickup truck veers at it head on. Reality turns into a sci-fi horror film when something escapes from an overturned freight car.

Aside from odd cube-shaped building blocks scattered in the fiery wreckage and some spooky alien sounds from one of the cars, the first real sign of things to come is when the kids discover the pickup's charred but somehow miraculously alive driver. Oh golly, it's Dr. Woodward, their biology teacher. The badly hurt man draws a gun on his students and utters a Delphic pronouncement: “They will kill you. Do not speak of this or you and your parents will die.”

Do they refer to the creature(s) that got away, responsible for a rash of stolen car parts and microwave ovens as well as power outages, pockets of destruction and several missing persons, including the sheriff? Joe's dad is left in charge of figuring out a mystery without many clues. Or are they the secretive air force unit that descended on the crash sight and takes up station around the little Ohio town?

The special effects are, for once, special, conjuring some of the old George Lucas-Steven Spielberg magic of bygone years. Suffice it to say that the alien isn't as cute as the one Spielberg's kids found in E.T., but Super 8 brims with the same irrepressible scouting around on bicycles through quiet suburbia—the sense that the kids are all right, even if some of the adults have serious problems. As with many of Spielberg's movies, family is the firmest bond, the mortar holding human relations together, even under the strain of imperious officials or threats from beyond our world. And like Spielberg, Abrams sometimes reaches for sentimentality to underscore his point.

For Abrams, Super 8 honors not only his inspirational mastermind but kids like himself who—in the era of Close Encounter and E.T.—went around on weekends and after school with portable Kodak cameras and rigged up little movies from their allowance money and whatever props were at hand, figured out makeup, SFX and occasionally (as with Alice) found a budding actor among family and friends. Nowadays kids might try something similar with their smart phones, but the effort back then to wield the camera and handle the film was more hands-on, more engaged and probably better early training for the sort of career Abrams made for himself in adulthood.
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