Critical Mass: The critics love 'Super 8' for what it represents
Director J.J. Abrams' neo-Spielbergian coming-of-age sci-fi action fantasy "Super 8" has been under wraps for a long time now. But the veil of secrecy is being lifted as the paying public finally gets a chance to see exactly what Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg have been up to.
So how are the critics, who saw the film early and have had a few days to collect their thoughts, reacting to this tale of an alien run amok in small town Ohio circa 1979 while a group of pre-teens make an 8-millimeter zombie flick? Does it recapture the magic of late '70s/early '80s Spielberg that it's so self-consciously attempting to evoke?
Mostly, the answer is yes. But it's not an unqualified success.
Take, for example, Kenneth Turan's review in The Times. Turan came away from the film heavy-hearted, lacking for enthusiasm for the wonders Abrams had shown him. He writes, "A longtime admirer of Spielberg, Abrams has made something more in that director's style than his own, an action that has diminished his own effectiveness without replicating what makes the best of Spielberg's films so successful." In the end, he says, "the problem with 'Super 8' is not how much there is to complain about but how little there is to be excited about."
Village Voice critic J. Hoberman is much kinder to the film, though perhaps he sees a little more depth in it than even Abrams and Spielberg intended. "The whole thing feels like one long car crash -- not meant as a put-down. Machines exist to pulverize or be pulverized. Without necessarily meaning to be, 'Super 8' is an American tale, dramatizing the long-ago crack-up of the nation’s industrial infrastructure."
Meanwhile, New York Observer crankster Rex Reed revs up the chainsaw for his review. He writes, "Sorry to dash your hopes, but it’s just more of the same junk. Junk for children, with an estimated $45-million budget. There oughta be a law." But even ol' Rex isn't totally immune to the charms of Abrams' youthful cast. He writes, "The best thing about 'Super 8,' by far, are the kids, all perfectly cast. The script does a much better job making them believable and real than the adults.... Watching these youngsters following their dream against all odds, I found myself getting some of my inner child back and laughing out loud at the same time."
On the other hand, San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle was enthralled by the film, which clearly taps into his sense of childlike wonder. He writes, "The pacing is superb, quick and agile without being frenzied, and the special effects are jaw-dropping. Abrams gets excellent performances from his young cast."
Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum is similarly over the moon about Abrams' look back at our lost Spielbergian childhoods. In fact, hers may be one of the most effusive in its praise, short of a sci-fi message board. She starts her review: "Loving, Playful, and spectacularly well made, 'Super 8' is easily the best summer movie of the year -- of many years. And I make that declaration with full knowledge that the season has just begun. It's been eons since a movie has conjured up such intense, specific feelings, images, memories, and nostalgic fantasies about American summertime youth -- everyone's American summertime youth, regardless of current age, nationality, sex, or climate. It's been ages since adolescent innocence, fatherly authority, and everyday awe were in movie vogue... How have we survived for so long on such a meager, high-cal, low-nutrition diet of processed summertime superhero sequels?"
But it's Roger Ebert who succinctly sums up what is best about the film -- not the visual effects or the thrills or the individual performances, but the style of filmmaking. It's a loud declaration that story and characters matter. It's a refutation of the brand-obsessed summer filmmaking of today. Or as Ebert writes: "All the same, 'Super 8' is a wonderful film, nostalgia not for a time but for a style of filmmaking, when shell-shocked young audiences were told a story and not pounded over the head with aggressive action. Abrams treats early adolescence with tenderness and affection. He uses his camera to accumulate emotion. He has the rural town locations right."
So did Abrams and Spielberg fill you with nostalgia or leave you pining for "Transformers"?
--Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: Joel Courtney stars in "Super 8." Credit: Paramount Pictures