J.J. Abrams latest film Super 8 is not E.T., to which it doubtless will be compared. Nor is it Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another film in the Steven Spielberg oeuvre to which it also owes a great debt. Heck, it isn’t even The Goonies. It is not any of these films.
Instead, it’s a stark reminder that having all the tricks in the bag doesn’t necessarily mean you can make magic. Being a fan of Abrams and his previous efforts, I went into Super 8 optimistic and enthusiastic that I was in for a great movie.
What I got instead was a shrill effort that accomplishes almost nothing except to demonstrate a filmmaker obviously at the top of his game technically, but seemingly lacking a grasp on what true human interaction, characters and to the greatest extent, story, are supposed to look like. I had a hard time caring about anyone in this movie, especially most of the kids. They all seem to exhist in the film mostly to fill a quota for a particular type of character.
You have the quiet kid who suffered a recent loss, the fat kid who tries to make up for it by being loud and bossy, the awkward kid who’s extremely nervous, the kid with braces who likes to blow stuff up because, as evidenced by the fact that you never see his parents, he’s obviously acting out. You also have the lonely, beautiful girl with the angry, drunk father.
She’s misunderstood by adults too and really has a heart of gold and helps bring out the best in our young hero. Each of the kids does have rare good moments in the film with the young girl Alice (Elle Fanning) and the main kid Joe (Joel Courtney) doing the best and most consistant work of the group. Fanning, in particular, stands out here.
You also have the stock bad guy Colonel Nelec (Noah Emeric) who is so one dimensional if he turned sideways, I’m almost certain he would disappear. He may as well be wearing an “I’m the bad guy” t-shirt as he goes through the motions trying to kill the creature. I’m sure you can guess what happens to him. And, of course, there’s the reliable Kyle Chandler as Deputy Lamp, Joe’s distant father who learns a valuable lesson about forgiveness seemingly out of nowhere.
(From here on you may get some spoilers – Fair warning)
Sure, there are a few moments in Super 8 where genuine emotion happens, but they are quickly swept aside with more parlor tricks and a repetroir of gags that include shaking bushes, sound effects, monsters reflected in water and all those many elements we’ve seen done before when they were new the first time. I’m not completely sure but if there wasn’t a cup of water vibrating on a dashboard, there should have been.
And did I forget to mention the lens flare? Oh yes, it’s there. In spades.
The film is often very violent as well. Seeing all the explsions, gunfire and more (one of the kids even “takes one in the leg”) play out during the film I can almost understand why Spielberg felt the need to replace the firearms in E.T. with walkie talkies. Maybe guns really don’t belong in a kids movie? I guess Super 8 is not really a kids movie.
What made a movie like E.T., in particular, work so well is that you genuinely cared about him as a character. You wanted him to make it home. He wasn’t threatening and violent, like the creature in Super 8 is. Plus, he didn’t eat people.
If we’d had anything in the way of explanation about where the creature comes from or why it’s so violent, maybe I could understand. Instead, we have the most limited amount of information (he crashed, we experimented on him) and, at the end, we’re supposed to care about if the creature is able to make it home? You can’t have it both ways.
Either the creature is not violent, just misunderstood and actually does nothing to harm humans and therefore we care if it’s able to get home or it’s evil and we need to blow it up. There’s no middle ground, no redemption for the creature — at least not in this movie. He simply does what he does and we’re supposed to care.
Along with the feelings for E.T.’s character you also empathized with Elliot and his quest to belong, to have something of his own and to fight the loneliness of his absentee father.
That feeling and, to use a phrase I haven’t used in awhile, “sense of wonder” is blatantly absent from this movie. Having people stare blankly into space watching a spaceship take off itsn’t the same thing as having a genuine moment. It’s just staged and has no real feeling or emotion if all the other stuff leading up to it means nothing.
E.T. also worked because it had something in it for both adults and children. Kids loved E.T. as a funny character and felt bad, along with Elliott, Gerty and the rest, when he was getting sick (literally homesick) and needed to go home. For adults, it helped you remember what it felt like to be a kid and also had an emotional center that you responded to. When I saw E.T. for the first time I cried when he died just like everyone else did in the theater. Anyone who says they didn’t is lying.
One other thing that struck me as odd about Super 8 is that the film shot by the kids is almost completely unnecessary in the film. The only real purpose it serves is to give the kids a reason to meet the drugstore clerk who helps them later in the movie. Other than that, the emergency and the action is pretty much in full swing by time they even get the film developed and see it so at that point it’s pretty much useless as a plot device.
Of course, if they had not been filming the movie in the first place they would not have seen the train crash and our hero would not have seen the monster. So, for that it does serve a purpose. It just seems that for such a big deal (the movie is called Super 8 after all) it should have played a bigger role in the film. Maybe in the director’s cut?
If you can say at least one positive thing about Super 8 it’s that it is a great looking and great sounding film. Cinematographer Larry Fong and composer Michael Michael Giacchino both do an excellent job. Giacchino even manages to evoke John Williams at several points during the film and also carve out a new direction and build on what was done in the past. On top of that, the visual effects (for the most part), and in particular the massive train crash, are extremely well done.
Nothing would make me happier than to be able to write a different review for Super 8. I sincerely wanted it to be everything the trailers made it seem like it was. Like may people of my generation, I recall fondly the simpler, lazy days of Summer when it seemed like anything was possible. I wanted those times and those feelings back, if only for 90 minutes or so.
I know what Abrams is trying to do here and he does manage to get a little bit of the way there. He just doesn’t make it all the way.
And that to me is the real unfortunate part about Super 8: The what could have been.