From the mind of new pop icon J.J. Abrams, comes the “it” film of the summer. It might not make the most money, and it might not play as long as others, but it has the most vocal following, as do most of Abrams’ projects. While not being a fan of his television shows, I feel he made by far the best Mission Impossible film, so my curiosity was piqued. While I remained mostly entertained, I don’t think it’s the revolution in pop cinema that most seemingly see it as. My biggest problem with Super 8 is I felt it didn’t know what type of film it wanted to be. So it jumped from plot to plot, glossing over the details in favor of half-hearted, false nostalgia.
When we first meet Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) it’s the worst moments of his life. His mother has died in an industrial accident, and his father, Sheriff Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is crumbling emotionally, filled with anger and sorrow, with no idea where to go with it or how to deal with it. Months later, Joe is just looking forward to a summer with his friends, the monster movie director/bossy kid Charles (Riley Griffiths), the pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee), the incessantly crying Martin (Gabriel Basso), and after spending a scene with them, you can’t help but agree with Deputy Lamb’s assessment: they’re a bunch of unlikable social rejects sans any redeeming qualities.
This is where the facade of nostalgia breaks down. The biggest problem facing a director (or cinematographer) making a period piece in 2011 is the fact that the cameras, negatives, and post-production processing and coloring techniques are so advanced. To get that true “70’s” look that so many films now try to ape (like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, the Hills Have Eyes remake) you can only achieve it with film and cameras from the period. For example, within the film, Charles shows a scene where Cary is a zombie, they obviously shot this on 16mm with an old film camera. It looks authentic. However, using the fanciest cranes and cameras, and then trying to achieve that same look will never look just right. So when you see period costumes and cars, it looks like what it is: modern day equipment and costumes trying to look old. It’s not the fault of the anyone, this is simply a technique that has not yet been mastered with Kodak’s full and detailed Vision 3 film stock. However, if the costumes look like play acting, it’s harder to believe the acting. This is something that can be compensated for, but not the lack of actual character or plot development.
Which, sadly, Super 8 has many problems with plot development. Joe’s friend are the aforementioned pack of strange rejects. What made Speilberg’s films E.T., The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind special was they were about human relationships on a real level. Mouth might have not been a straight arrow, but he didn’t ramble psychotically (except to confuse the maid) and take his words as his serious convictions. Joe only hangs out with his friends for lack of anything better to do, but he instantly forgets about them as soon as Charles convinces Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the wife in his film, and Joe quickly becomes obsessed with his feeling of connectedness to her.
Don’t get me wrong. I tried to see the wonder, the magic, that made Speilberg’s films famous. I just don’t see it here. There is little chemistry between Joe and his dream girl Alice, with what happened between their parents seemingly being the basis for their attraction. This creates an odd tension when the two characters spend time together, but never say anything of substance to each other. Lumping a group of kids into the same group does not instantly make them friends. The characters have little interaction between each other where they aren’t shouting, arguing, or running away from each other. The script tries so hard to find reasons for them to stay together, but when it can’t find any organic ones, it creates plot devices.
And we come to, the train crash. For what is ultimately the biggest f/x-heavy set piece in the film, it didn’t last very long nor was it very spectacular. Final Destination 2 has what is one of the best accident scenes crafted on film, Abrams should have been taking notes. I realize this isn’t supposed to be the ultimate centerpiece to the film, but when the actual centerpiece comes along, and then is thrown out the window at the last second, you can’t help but analyze what exactly were supposed to be the spectacular scenes, which in my opinion, is never a good thing when you’re watching what is purported to be the summer’s top blockbuster.
The problem is, much of the hype for this film was based around its secrecy. Everyone was dying to know what the monster was, or if there was a monster at all. Weeks before the film came out, online outlets were told to release their reviews early, to combat the soft tracking numbers, and I feel this ultimately hurt the movie more than it helped it. They think it earned them an extra $7 million, I think it lost them a lot of money in disappointed fans that were expecting something spectacular on the reveal, and not an amalgamation of other creatures that have been done in other movies.
It’s hard to explain this and keep things spoiler-free, but I will do it. This whole film was marketed around the mystery of the monster, to serve as the background for massive changes in Joe’s life. However, in execution, the concept of the monsters never directly correlates with Joe’s story in any way, other than serving as a distraction to his Sheriff Deputy father, making the kids’ hijinks possible. This might be a spoiler to some, but I’m not bothered with it: The mystery is a simple plot device. There, I said it. There is no substance to the mystery, it has no real meaning to the changes Joe and his father experience emotionally. Of course, through plot devices, they force a connection, but the mystery, the train crash, everything could have been left out of the film and this would be an interesting study of a father and a son learning to grieve.
Instead, it tries to be E.T. by way of Close Encounters in its sci-fi elements, but in its emotional elements, it comes off more like Cloverfield, which is to say they skipped over any important ones in favor of f/x scenes. On a certain level, that would work, if the action scenes actually had any substance, and weren’t heavy-handed reflections of the characters’ inner turmoil.
With all that said, don’t be confused. There are still elements of Super 8 that are fun and light and entertaining, but those scenes don’t constitute the whole movie. A large portion of the film is filled with clunky plot devices meant to reflect on the characters, rather than the characters actually expressing themselves. An argument Alice and Joe have constitutes most of the talking they do to each other, and it’s filled with stilted dialogue about not being able to be together at their parents’ request. Everything smacks of cheap clawing for a time and place that it wasn’t made, and isn’t really about. Can anyone give me a valid reason this film is set in the late 70’s? The only plausible explanation I can come up with is Abrams is nostalgic for this period, and apparently everyone wants to be, with cheap gimmicks like using slang from the era (although I’m quite sure the last time someone said “mint” instead of “cool” was 1958). I understand. However, cramming the word into the script 4 times in one scene, never to be heard again, or any other era slang for that matter, cheapens the whole experience. It doesn’t feel authentic because it’s not. It’s forced nostalgia, and nothing feels more fake.
Overall, it’s not a bad film. On the same note, it’s not a great film. It’s a decidedly average sci-fi film in a barren landscape of ideas, and while some may believe that a tiny fraction of quality in a sea of mediocrity is worth shouting about, I don’t. Despite the slick cinematography, accurate design and costumes, and pretty solid performances for little known actors, the sum of the parts does not equal a whole. It’s fun and entertaining, in spots, in other places it’s listless and self-indulgent. If the trailers don’t have you sold, wait until Blu Ray or Netflix, there’s nothing here so spectacular you should shell out your hard earned $10. Save it for when your local revival theater shows Stand By Me. You won’t be disappointed.
Super 8 – 7.8/10