June 10th, 2011 | by MATTHEW SINGER Movies & Television |

Close Encounters of the Retro Kind: Super 8 Reviewed

super 8The roof, the roof, the roof is on fiyah!: Joel Courtney (right) and Gabriel Basso don't need no water, but they will take some Capri Sun if you have it. - Paramount
The makers of Super 8 wanted to keep the movie such a secret they didn't screen it until after WW press deadlines (and they stuck the screening all the way out in Clackamas). We're not sure what they were hiding from.

Super 8

WW Critic's Score:
73

It’s tricky reviewing a film like Super 8, one that’s been cloaked in mystery for a year now and marketed as a movie you want to go into knowing as little about as possible, and it becomes especially difficult when a lot of the issues I have with the film are related to the secrets its creators are trying to keep concealed. So let’s just throw one big potential spoiler alert around this whole review and start with this: Those “secrets”? No big whoop, really.

That’s not meant as a slight. Tempering expectations is the best thing I can do for Super 8, and I want to help it out (not that it needs my assistance). Because you should see it. In a season of lazy cash-grab sequels and more tired comic book adaptations, it’s fun and cool and genuine in the ways summer blockbusters used to be. The way movies used to be is writer-director J.J. Abrams’ entire driving principle here. As you may have already heard, Super 8 is exceptionally “Spielbergian,” right down to the use of the E.T.-referencing Amblin Entertainment logo in the opening credits. Hell, Steven Spielberg’s name is listed just below Abrams’ on the poster, as a producer. All that is cause for excitement, and much of it is justified. But as an unabashed throwback to those universal cinematic experiences of the 1970s and ‘80s, it can’t actually be one of those movies, which truly presented audiences with new, thrilling visions of the world. Super 8, by its very conceit, is nothing you haven’t seen before. You just haven’t seen it recently.    

So, as with any piece of art motivated primarily by nostalgia, there’s a limit to how good Super 8 can be. Abrams just about hits that lowered mark, but it is a bit curious that someone of his imagination would handicap himself in such a way in the first place. Looking backward is hardly what he’s built his filmmaking career on. He successfully reinvigorated the Star Trek franchise by dosing his 2009 reboot with postmodern energy. And in 2008, he sought to “reinvent” the monster movie with the polarizing Cloverfield. Now, he’s gone and made a fairly traditional monster movie—at least in the Spielberg sense, where the creature ends up being more misunderstood than malevolent.

Wait. Is calling Super 8 a “monster movie” giving away too much? Well, I already wrote it, so let’s talk about it in that context. The biggest critical complaint against Cloverfield (aside from the nausea-inducing handheld camera work) was that Abrams—although only credited as a producer, the movie was largely thought of as his project—cared a lot more about the monster than the human characters. He has the opposite problem here. He shows a good deal of affection for the gang of barely pubescent kids at the story’s heart. All the young actors, with the exception of Dakota Fanning’s sister Elle—who is talented and starting to look like Lindsay Lohan, two things that should deeply concern her parents—have few to no other credits, and they are all uniformly great, particularly the two leads. But now the giant menace that kicks the plot into gear—which I’m trying really hard not to reveal any details about even though, as I already hinted at, it’s nothing special—is the afterthought. Say what you will about Cloverfield (I loved it), but its monster was unassailably bad-ass. This thing? Less so.

But you should still see Super 8. It is imperfect—Abrams occasionally trips over the thin line separating homage and cliché—but it is a movie infused with a love of the movies, and that carries it a long way. Here’s another possible spoiler, but screw it: As the end credits roll, we get to see the film-within-the-film being made by the kids as the surreal disaster unfolds around them in their small late '70s Ohio town. It’s a zombie flick, complete with a direct tip of the hat to George Romero, a director whose budgets could barely fill the catering costs of an average Spielberg shoot. Artistically, however, Romero and Spielberg are the same kind of filmmaker, overflowing with ingenuity and creativity and an urge to make some connection with the rest of the world through the lens of a camera. Abrams is an heir to both. And now that he’s gotten this tribute out of the way, he can go back to building his own legacy.    

Super 8 opens today at multiple locations; find showtimes here.
 
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