RAIDER OF THE SPIELBERG ART
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