A film review by Craig J. Koban June 14, 2011

SUPER 8 j
j
½ 

2011, PG-13, 112 mins.

 

Joe Lamb: Joel Courtney / Jack Lamb: Kyle Chandler / Alice: Elle Fanning / Charles: Riley Griffiths / Nelec: Noah Emmerich / Louis Dainard: Ron Eldard

Written and directed by J.J. AbramS

The much-anticipated SUPER 8 - not to be confused with the world's largest budget hotel chain - is a film that involves two stories: one that works marvelously; the other...not so much.  

The first attains a dramatic and nostalgic greatness as a coming-of-age storyline and is the emotional epicenter of the film, whereas the other is a far less effective and far more routine creature feature.  This creates an odd disconnect when viewing SUPER 8: I was moved and entertained by its focus on the microcosm of the fractured American suburban family unit and the ways children spend their summer times of yesteryear.  Where it failed to move and entertain me was with its extraterrestrial and military cover-up thread that hits too many predictable and road-most-traveled-before beats. 

The film is the product of J.J. Abrams, who, to be very fair, is a prodigious directorial talent with a strong eye for visual flair and pacing while maintaining an affinity with his actors.  This is not to say, though, that he has complete discipline as a filmmaker.  His bravura small screen successes on TV, like ALIAS and LOST, have not wholeheartedly transported to the silver screen with consistent results.  He did find early success in breathing new life into the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series with the third film in the trilogy – still his best pure genre film on his resume - which was a natural extension of his spy series ALIAS.  He then made the epic and lavishly scaled – but mournfully overrated and misguided – STAR TREK reboot where he made the error of transplanting Gene Roddenberry's iconic and thoughtful characters and themes into a STAR WARS-esque space opera heavy on eye candy and action, but low on sobering and contemplative ideas. His obvious filmmaking aptitude was on display in all of these films, even when his restraint sometimes was absent. 

Now comes SUPER 8, which is, at Abrams’ insistence, a nostalgic fuelled homage to two things: (1) the Super 8 monster and creature films that he made as a boy and (2) the film cannon of Steven Spielberg (serving here as Executive Producer) whose sci-fi films from the mid-70’s to early 80’s influenced the ambitious Abrams as a child.  Watching SUPER 8 its impossible not to notice Abrams’ intense admiration for his cinematic idol and, perhaps more obviously, how much filmmaking was a passion for those that really cared about it at such a young age.  It’s noteworthy that SUPER 8 takes place in the late 70’s: this was a period of Abrams’ own adolescence and, conveniently, a period where Spielberg himself saw tremendous development and growth as a filmmaker.  

SUPER 8 is set in the summer of 1979 in the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio, which looks like it could have served as the backdrop of Spielberg’s own E.T. - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL.  The story follows the comings-and-goings of six young teenagers who happen to make an astonishing discovery while trying to make their own amateur zombie film, the latter which, as many adult viewers will fondly recall from their own childhoods, involves sneaking out of their parents' homes at wee hours of the night and in hopes of never getting get caught.  The filmmaking crew consists of Joe (Joel Courtney), the makeup man; Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), main actress; Martin (Gabriel Bosso) the main actor; Cary (Ryan Lee) the camera man; Preston (Zach Miles) lighting expert, and Charles (Riley Griffiths) the director who may take his penny-pinching budgeted horror flick a bit too seriously for someone barely out of puberty. 

Most of the kids are spirited and plucky, except for Joe, whose mother recently died in an industrial accident.  His father, the town’s deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler) blames Ellie’s father for his wife’s death, which makes her friendship to Joe a bit complicated.  Nonetheless, they both connect with one another during the film shoot, which, during one night, takes place at a local train station.  Just when filming is about to commence on one scene, a truck with an unknown driver plunges onto the tracks in front of a speeding locomotive and derails it and all of its cars.  It all looks really fishy, seeing as the truck seems to have been purposely on a collusion course with the train.  Not only that, but the military swoops in, led by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) and begins to almost immediately quarantine the crash site and the nearby town.  The most astonishing discovery, though, occurs when the the kids learn of what has escaped from one of the cars, which is clearly not on this earth. 

SUPER 8 achieves noteworthy prominence with capturing the essence of childhood pleasures set in its 70's milieu.  It evokes a period when killing time with your friends was not as simple as staying indoors and playing CALL OF DUTY on Xbox Live.  The film comments on how kids – without the modern sinful pleasures of cell phones, DVD players, and computers – actually left their homes to do something creative that required time, effort, and innovation. The Super 8 film within the film is wonderful for how it deeply suggests a love and appreciation of movies themselves.  Even though its adolescent directors and writers lack professional skill and polish, their passion and enthusiasm shines through the mediocrity of the material.  All of this also reinforces how these kids embark on projects like this to escape harsher realities of their family lives, like divorce or death for that matter. 

The child actors here are exquisitely unforced and nuanced.  Where Abrams is certainly Spielberg’s equal is in terms of getting thanklessly naturalistic performances from his youthful actors.  Two in particular standout: Courtney and Fanning, who both bring an underplayed level of grounded vulnerability, timeless innocence and fresh faced inquisitiveness about them.  There is a scene when the pair shares in the mutual pain over their respective losses in their personal lives that is touching and heartfelt. The adult characters may play second fiddle to the children, but there is stirring work here as well:  Kyle Chandler as Joe’s father is a vulnerable and melancholic figure in the film too, if not a bit stubbornly prideful and guarded.  Importantly, he’s not a misunderstood adult trapped in a child centric film: he is a character to be understood as well.

Where the film fails, I am afraid, is that it kind of betrays the innocent and whimsical story of childhood and home movie making with the secondary story of the alien landing and cover-up, which hits too many conventional beats.  Everything involving things not of this earth and the government agents' attempts to subvert it from the public have little of the magical escapism and heart of the emotional core of the children's story.  Super 8 could have simply been a film about kids discovering the power of their friendship bonds and their mutual fondness of cinema.  Aliens in the story just are not interesting, outside of it facilitating Abrams’ desire for big set pieces, telegraphed boo moments, and large scale spectacle.   Yes, the train derailment sequence is a precisely executed bit of mayhem and vehicular carnage, but Abrams seems more in love with stretching it out to unending levels of CGI trickery just to prove how much artificial havoc he can orchestrate. 

The alien itself is poorly envisioned and realized.  Initially, Abrams is wise to follow the JAWS method of not showing the creature very much at all, but when we do get the obligatory close-ups and reveals, the monstrosity looks like a lazy retread of the CLOVERFIELD beast, albeit in a smaller form.  It occupies scenes late in the film where the kids are outrunning it and the military, which left me questioning several things: For instance, how was such a hideous creature made of tentacles and teeth capable of interstellar travel and able to construct an elaborate craft to get to earth?  Also, why would a vengeful creature that seems to hate humans with a passion not rip poor little Joe to pieces when confronted by him?  There is a showdown between the kid and the alien that laughably and inconsistently betrays the primal essence of the beast established beforehand.  Then again, this is the same film where these misfit kids are able to successfully sneak back into their town that is under heavy military lock down without being discovered.  Yup.  Sure.  Uh-huh.

I guess the inclusion of a misunderstood alien by Abrams harkens back to Spielberg’s own CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and E.T., not to mention that SUPER 8 has other Spielbergian elements and themes in spades (single parent families, childhood friendships, the joys and frivolity of summertime youth, alien cover-ups, and so on).  There is also some STAND BY ME and THE GOONIES thrown in here for good measure.  Many critics have applauded Abrams for how effortlessly he evokes the essence of early Spielberg films, going as far as to essentially label him as the his modern day heir apparent.  One thing, however, separates these two filmmakers besides age:  Spielberg daringly and boldly forged ahead of the pack to create his own cinematic style in his early films without slavishly riffing on his influences.  There is a fine line between paying homage to something and replicating it.  Abrams proves with SUPER 8 that he can replicate with skill and polish.     

Yet, in closing, where is his own voice here?  Abrams does lets loose with his some of his trademark flourishes in SUPER 8 – lens flare haters…beware! – and his expedient command over action and visual effects is as impressive as ever.  He is talented enough to prove that he can clone vintage Spielberg films, but what he needs to do now is find his own approach.  There are times when I feel that Abrams is perhaps a bit too self-congratulatory as a filmmaker (listen to some of his audio commentaries) and sense that some much needed humility would allow him to intrepidly march forward to more challenging and creative avenues.  SUPER 8’s child-centered storyline is a step in the right direction, but its obtuse alien and military subplots feel more like a lamentable pastiche.  This is why the film is one to be greatly admired and frustrated by at the same time.  What Abrams needs to do next, I’m afraid, is to place himself apart from his filmmaker antecedents.  Referencing and, to be blunt, copying directors of the past is easy: traversing down your own creative well…that’s where the real inspirational magic happens.

 
REVIEW ADDENDUM

Be sure to stay through the film's end credits.

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