10 June 2011
I saw the teaser once, then I went into ostrich-mode on this one. J.J. Abrams has a good track record so far (even Cloverfield is kind of a gem in that over-done genre), and teaming up with Spielberg for an homage/return to '80s-Spielberg -- that was enough for me. It already had my money. The less I knew about it the better.
Basically, it doesn't disappoint. It's got some DNA from E.T. and Close Encounters, and a lot of The Goonies, and although if you stop and think about it I'm not sure the story makes very much sense, it smartly sticks to the kids, and their story makes sense. It's fun, it's emotionally rewarding, it's smart, it's exciting, and it's legitimately scary. It's a little hamfisted more than once, but it's an 80s movie -- it really is more of a "return" than an "homage," because almost never does it tip its hat or modernize sensibilities; it feels like someone uncovered a film from about 1985 that has impossibly good effects for the time (and passingly good for now, though a little heavy on the CG) -- so hamfisted goes with the territory, and anyway the not-quite-subtle moments at least feel earned. Overall I enjoyed the hell out of this.
My biggest criticism of Abrams films is that he doesn't have the eye for iconic images and design that Spielberg has. I'm thinking of the Abrams-produced Cloverfield (which I have read Super 8 is supposedly not a prequel to, but I remain skeptical and unconvinced) and Star Trek, mostly, and now this. Compare those to any Spielberg film -- then or now, but especially then. Spielberg embeds his films with characters, costumes, ships, framing of shots that stick with you decades later. The look of E.T., the red hoodie, the fly-past-the-moon, the dinosaur in the rearview, virtually every frame of Raiders of the Lost Ark (the perfect storm of Lucas and Spielberg). Abrams doesn't really have those moments. [SPOILERISH] His characters are great -- nuanced takes on the archetypes of their genre -- and his stories move along at just the right pace, and are full of exciting, brilliant scenes, but his sense of iconic imagery feels lacking. The alien in Cloverfield, Big Red from Star Trek, and the monster here, all vaguely Lovecraftian tentacle-things, but almost the opposite of iconic or memorable. Messy, alien things. In a sense it's neat, and definitely consistent, but it's also a tiny bit disappointing. It lacks the "cinematicness" of Spielberg's design without adding any level of "realism" or "verisimilitude" in its place. And sometimes it comes off as functional without formal beauty. The same is true with his ship designs and character looks, I think. Nothing stands out, begs to be remembered. Very few shots leap off the screen and scream "this could be your poster, but even if it's not, you'll remember me forever."
I only even think of this because of the odd consistency in the alien design (also reminiscent of The Mist and Monsters... clearly a trend), and because this is "Abrams doing Spielberg," which begs that sort of comparison. Still, a lack of iconicness (iconicism?) doesn't detract from the film's enjoyment. And this one was fun.
If you're reading this and you haven't seen it yet, stay for the credits. It's not a spoiler/twist kind of thing. It's just fun.
Seen at Regal Lloyd Center Cinema.