Director: J.J. Abrams
Stars: Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler
I never read the synopsis written on the back of a book before I buy it. Other than a vague idea of the genre, I like entering into a story with no idea what to expect. For the same reason, I try not to watch too many film trailers. 2 different theatrical trailers plays 50 different TV spots plus even more online trailers for a movie can absolutely spoil that film’s potential. Since a film’s trailer is built around throwing it’s first major plot point at the potential audience, it spoils the author’s intent of surprising the audience with it’s story. It’s for this same reason that I will usually prefer a teaser trailer over an official full-length trailer. Take for example the teaser vs the trailer for Super 8.
I watched Super 8 on DVD last night, having long forgotten the details of the film and only having a fuzzy memory that a bunch of my friends told me I NEEDED to see it. The film takes place in 1979 and the first act of the film is all about it’s cast of middle-school kids trying to make a zombie film. The main protaganist, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) recently lost his mother in a tragic accident and feels emotionally distant from his father. My immediate expectation was that this would be a coming-of-age film centered around a group of kids making a movie. Before the first act was over I thought this was going to be just like Son of Rambow. All the exposition was there, the characters and their desired goals all presented neatly in a nicely wrapped package of story structure.
Then there is that first major plot point which, like any well-written plot-point should do, suddenly takes the story in a completely different direction. This train crash that happens out of nowhere followed immediately by the intrigue that not everything is as it seems to be with this accident. I was immediately hooked and eager to see this out to the end – that’s fucking awesome screenwriting and directing. I really won’t go on more about the plot of the movie beyond that, only to say that throughout it’s different plot twists, it still hold true to its established exposition. Like any movie, it’s not without it’s flaws (I’m not going to say this movie is perfect) but it is one of the best scripts I’ve seen with great direction to match. It’s not the clever J.J. Abrams from Star Trek or Lost. This is a J.J. Abrams that clearly understand the necessary basics of film making. Under the influence of Steven Speilberg – the two have made what easily is one of my favorite films of the past 10 years.
Super 8 is a prime example of traditional screenwriting and why the three-act structure is still relevant in today’s film making. I recall reading Syd Field’s book Screenplay in school and felt that it’s references were rather dated as it used films like Three Days of The Condor and Silver Streak as examples of storytelling through a three-act structure. Sure there have been several revised copies of the book with updated examples but there was a tendency to think “Well, that’s how they made movies WAY back then. It’s different now.” The truth is, no. Story structure is the absolute most important thing, and it still hasn’t changed after all of these years. You will occasionally have a film that veers away from the traditional outline and become a success and even change the genre (Pulp Fiction is an example that springs immediately to mind). Films like that are a rarity, however and most of the great films people truly remember all have their roots in traditional story structure.
As enamored as I am with the screenplay of Super 8 I should probably touch on some other aspects of the movie. The performances are great. Fitting with the “Expect the Unexpected” theory I approached the movie with I appreciated NOT really knowing who any of these faces were – there was nobody I could look at and say “that’s the kind of performance I’d expect from THAT actor.” The only actors I immediately recognized were Elle Fanning and Noah Emmerich. Apparently Bruce Greenwood and Dan Castellaneta are in here somewhere but I honestly didn’t recognize them. The special effects in this film are an excellent blend of practical FX and CGI – such a good mix that you don’t immediately know which is which. There are few films that, after viewing, I feel motivated to watch the “behind-the-scenes” featurettes – this is one of those films.
In short, Super 8 is .. well… SUPER. Watch it as an the entertaining film it is or watch it as an terrific example of story structure. Either way, WATCH THIS MOVIE! I give it a Super 8 out of 4 stars.