RAIDER OF THE SPIEL­BERG ART

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Strat­ton

VIEW­ING Su­per 8, a sci-fi thriller set in a small Amer­i­can town in the late 1970s, brings back mem­o­ries of all those films, many of them pro­duced and-or di­rected by Steven Spiel­berg, that were made dur­ing that same pe­riod, films that cap­ti­vated a gen­er­a­tion of kids and, with­out doubt, their par­ents, too. I’m think­ing of E.T.: The Ex­traTer­res­trial, of course, but also The Goonies, Poltergeist, Grem­lins, WarGames, Close En­coun­ters of the Third Kind and a few oth­ers.

Many of these films were set in small towns and cen­tred on the chil­dren of sin­gle­par­ent fam­i­lies (like Spiel­berg him­self) who be­came in­volved in fan­tas­tic ad­ven­tures in which they some­times en­coun­tered ex­trater­res­trial be­ings and of­ten found them­selves in con­flict with the authorities. The films were fun, pop­u­lar and, in some cases, mem­o­rable. Su­per 8, pro­duced for Spiel­berg’s com­pany, Am­blin, and di­rected by J. J. Abrams (who clearly wants to be the Spiel­berg of his gen­er­a­tion) is very much in line with those films of 30 years ago.

The open­ing shot, as the cam­era cranes down over the facade of a fac­tory, con­tains a great deal of in­for­ma­tion con­veyed in a sim­ple but ef­fec­tive man­ner. A sign claims the Lil­lian Steel Corp is an ‘‘ em­ployee owned’’ en­ter­prise, while an ad­ja­cent no­tice re­ports it has been 784 days since the last ac­ci­dent oc­curred there. But as the cam­era moves slowly down, a worker re­places the 784 with the stark num­ber one, and Abrams cuts to a win­try shot of a young boy, dressed in black, sitting on a swing out­side a house and clearly in mourn­ing.

The boy is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and the ac­ci­dent in­volved his mother, killed by a fall­ing steel girder. Friends and fam­ily — Joe’s be­reaved fa­ther, Jack­son (Kyle Chan­dler), is the town’s deputy sher­iff — have gath­ered in the house for the wake. Snatches of con­ver­sa­tion by the mourn­ers, both adults and chil­dren, clar­ify what has hap­pened.

Four months later it’s the sum­mer hol­i­days. Joe and his friends, in­clud­ing Charles (Ri­ley Grif­fiths), are ex­cited about their sum­mer pro­ject: mak­ing an 8mm movie to en­ter in the Cleve­land In­ter­na­tional Su­per 8 Film Fes­ti­val. Be­ing fans of Night of the Liv­ing Dead, the boys have de­cided to make a zom­bie movie. Charles, who is writ­ing and di­rect­ing this opus, has de­cided hu­man in­ter­est may add to the qual­ity of his pro­duc­tion and has asked pretty Alice (Elle Fan­ning) to play the wife of the film’s nerdy hero. Joe, who is smit­ten with Alice, is do­ing tech­ni­cal work on the film.

On the night the chil­dren film a key scene at Lil­lian’s rail­way sta­tion, a catas­tro­phe oc­curs and they see a ter­ri­ble col­li­sion in which the driver of a ute is badly in­jured. The driver, whom the boys recog­nise, is­sues them with a grim warn­ing: ‘‘ Do not speak of this or your par­ents will die,’’ he says. Mean­while, at the crash site, Joe finds a small white ob­ject, a lit­tle like a Ru­bik’s Cube, that seems to have a life of its own.

In the days that fol­low strange things hap­pen. Dogs go crazy, power is abruptly cut off, the car be­long­ing to the sher­iff is mys­te­ri­ously crushed and a large force of armed men from the Air Force takes over the town. In this kind of film, the mil­i­tary is never to be trusted and their leader, Colonel Nelec (Noah Em­merich), is sin­gle-mind­edly pur­su­ing a mys­te­ri­ous mis­sion.

For much of its length Su­per 8 suc­ceeds in in­trigu­ing and en­ter­tain­ing the viewer. Abrams achieves an un­easy mood in a va­ri­ety of ways (a news story about Three Mile Is­land is briefly heard on tele­vi­sion and there’s a town meet­ing in which a Sarah Palin look-alike pro­claims: ‘‘ This feels like a Rus­sian in­va­sion’’). There’s also plenty of hu­mour: an older kid who works at the gen­eral store has just ac­quired a Walk­man, of which the sher­iff dis­ap­proves. ‘‘ Guys walk­ing around with their own stereos! It’s a slip­pery slope.’’

Un­for­tu­nately, to­wards the end the film fal­ters badly. We’ve al­ready been al­lowed to see, and hear, tan­ta­lis­ing glimpses of the ‘‘ thing’’, the alien in­vader that all the fuss is about, and it would have been bet­ter if it had re­mained largely un­seen and thus more mys­te­ri­ous. Sadly, we not only see far too much of it but it’s hu­man­ised in an E.T. sort of way, which sounds a false note in an other­wise en­gag­ing fan­tasy.

De­spite this, there’s a lot of tal­ent on dis­play here and Abrams (who pre­vi­ously made Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble III and the above av­er­age mod­erni­sa­tion of Star Trek) rises to the oc­ca­sion. Per­for­mances, from a largely un­known cast, are ex­cel­lent and the spe­cial ef­fects are, not sur­pris­ingly, eye­pop­ping. This is very nearly a clas­sic film of its type, but it falls short. HIGH hopes that Brides­maids would con­sti­tute a fem­i­nist ri­poste to the in­creas­ingly un­funny se­ries of raunchy films in which a bunch of ju­ve­nile lads be­have badly ( The Hang­over Part II, for in­stance) are soon dashed. Kris­ten Wiig, one of the cast mem­bers of Satur­day Night Live, co­scripted the film with An­nie Mu­molo and has cast her­self as An­nie who, de­spite her many qual­i­ties, sees her­self as a loser. Her busi­ness has failed and the man she dates (Jon Hamm, be­ing sleazy) is in­ter­ested only in the ‘‘ wham, bang, thank you, ma’am’’ sort of in­ter­ac­tion.

An­nie’s best friend since child­hood, Lil­lian (Maya Ru­dolph), is get­ting mar­ried and so, of course, An­nie will be her maid of hon­our. It’s a role that seems to be ex­tremely com­plex and in­cludes not only ex­ten­sive shop­ping for frocks but also ar­rang­ing lunches, a bach­e­lorette trip and the bri­dal shower. Dur­ing this process, An­nie, her self-es­teem al­ready at an all­time low, finds her­self con­stantly up­staged and out-ma­noeu­vred by Lil­lian’s new pal, He­len (Rose Byrne in ex­cel­lent, bitchy form), who clearly reck­ons she’s much bet­ter suited for the maid of hon­our role than An­nie.

Wiig, who has made an im­pres­sion in sup­port­ing roles in sev­eral re­cent films, among them Paul, Date Night and Knocked Up, has failed as a writer to pro­vide a re­ally in­ter­est­ing role for her­self as an ac­tor. An­nie is so pa­thetic she be­comes an­noy­ing and that clearly wasn’t the in­ten­tion. As if to prop up a po­ten­tially ami­able but flag­ging com­edy about fe­male friend­ship and ri­valry, di­rec­tor Paul Feig un­wisely places great em­pha­sis on scenes that seem de­signed as the distaff ver­sions of the grossout mo­ments from the bad boys’ films men­tioned ear­lier. Hence, a visit the brideto-be and her fe­male friends make to a Brazil­ian restau­rant for lunch is fol­lowed by some ex­plo­sive defe­cat­ing and vom­it­ing in in­ap­pro­pri­ate places.

There are other strange in­gre­di­ents to this wildly over­long film. An­nie lives with a pair of bizarre English si­b­lings who take ad­van­tage of her con­stantly (as does al­most ev­ery­one else) but she can’t seem to get rid of them. And scenes in which Melissa Mc­Carthy por­trays an over­weight and ex­ces­sively talk­a­tive woman are al­lowed to go on for far too long. On a som­bre note, the late Jill Clay­burgh ap­pears in her fi­nal film play­ing An­nie’s con­cerned mother.

Elle Fan­ning and Joel Courtney film more than they bar­gained for in Su­per 8

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