Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8: where a kid can be a kid

It would be easy to dismiss J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" as a two-hour cliche. One could say it's like every monster movie they watched when they were 12 and leave the theater disappointed. You could call Abrams a hack, claiming he ripped off everyone from George Romero, Roger Corman and "Super 8" producer Steven Spielberg.

If we got mad at people who ripped off the movies they love, we'd have burned Quentin Tarantino at the stake by now.

What Abrams has done with his first feature since the excellent "Star Trek" reboot, is remind us what it's like to be 13 and why we go to movies. For some of us, he's reminded us why we ever dreamed of making our own movies.

"Super 8" follows Joe, Charles, Alice and their crew of young teens as they make a zombie movie. Set in 1979, the children are fans of Romero's first two "... of the Dead" films, "Star Wars" and "Halloween." In this world, Freddy and Jason don't exist.

No plot spoilers from me, except to say Joe, the make-up and special effects wiz, and Alice, the burgeoning star not just of the movie within the movie but "Super 8" as a whole, fall for each other despite a feud between their fathers. The film crew witnesses a massive train wreck and that's when the fun starts.

Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning and Joe and Alice, respectively, chew the scenery with believable dialogue when they speak and expressions of awe when they don't.

A film like this is nothing without great effects. Abrams has learned the tricks of not showing the monster until the reveal will have the most punch. We see huge shadows and what could be extra arms or maybe tentacles before coming face-to-face with the creature. Sure, it's CGI set in a time when teens like Joe's friend Cary played Coleco Electronic Football, but it's a great creature.

The rest of the crew includes firebug Cary, director (and token fat kid) Charles, leading man Martin, and wire-thin Preston. The friendships feel real in even the most extreme situations. As for adults, the fathers of Joe and Alice -- one a deputy sheriff and one the town drunk -- serve as the primary adults in the film. Each has a backstory that is only revealed in bits and pieces, most often by their children. The history between the two men is one of many subplots, which could be distracting but instead add depth to what would otherwise be just another monster movie. "Super 8" plays more like a fast-paced novel thanks to the subplots.

"Super 8" is PG-13, thanks to some very intense action and a few instances of teenaged swearing. The film is mostly bloodless (except when it comes to Joe's fake blood effects), so gore will likely shy away. There are at least three good "jump" moments, so don't be afraid to take a date.

Threat level: RED (For an explanation of Warning Signs rating system, visit the Warning System page.)

"Super 8," written and directed by J.J. Abrams, produced by Steven Spielberg and starring no one you've ever heard of, is in theaters now.

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