J.J. Abrams’ new film, Super 8, is an unabashed love-letter to the late ’70s and early ’80s films directed by Steven Spielberg and, as such, seems like it was designed from top-to-bottom to tickle every movie-loving funny-bone in my body. I’m sure I’m not alone. Super 8 has some narrative problems that prevents it from ever reaching the heights of the great Spielberg-directed films it was designed to emulate, but that doesn’t stop it from being a rousingly entertaining film of a type that we really don’t see too much of anymore.
It’s the summer of 1979, and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just recently lost his mother to a terrible accident in the factory where she worked. As the school-year ends, he finds solace in the project he’s working on with his friends: filming a make-shift zombie movie on a super 8 camera. Somehow, Charles (Riley Griffiths), the boy directing and masterminding the film, has convinced a girl, Alice (Elle Fanning) to play a part in their movie. Joe is immediately smitten, but his father (Kyle Chandler) forbids him from having anything to do with her, due to a bitter feud with her father. One night, after having all snuck out to film a scene of their movie, the boys and Alice witness a terrible train derailment. Soon after, all sorts of mysterious events begin happening in their small town, and the military arrives to supervise the investigation of the train-wreck. As things escalate, the boys begin to suspect that something terrible was released when the train crashed, and the super 8 footage they shot that night might hold a vital clue.
It’s interesting that I began that description of Super 8 by writing about some of the character story-lines in the film, rather than the monster-on-the-loose sci-fi story. That’s because where Super 8 succeeds — and succeeds brilliantly — is in creating several wonderfully layered character story-lines (several of which I have only hinted at in my above summation) that engage the audience and pull at one’s heart-strings. It’s on the monster side of things where the film wobbles a bit, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
Many of Steven Spielberg’s early films were told from the point-of-view of a child or children (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is the best example), and like that film, Super 8 spends a lot of time fleshing out the characters and personalities of the different kids who form the main cast of characters. I’ve read several reviews that commented on how Mr. Abrams and his team echoed the device used in E.T. of allowing the kids to be constantly talking over one another in the film, the way real kids do. I noticed that as well, and it reminded me less of E.T. than it did The Goonies, one of my favorite films of all time (which was directed by Richard Donner and executive-produced by, wait for it, Steven Spielberg). My mom commented that she felt this aspect of the film reminded her of Stand By Me (another great film), and I agree with that assessment as well. I have a fond place in my heart for these kids-on-an-adventure movies from my childhood, and what E.T., The Goonies, and Stand By Me all have in common — and which Super 8 gets exactly right — is that not only is it critical for the film to take the time to really allow us to get to know each of the individual kids, but that the adventure on which the kids get swept up needs to feel genuinely perilous. These are all films about kids, but they’re not films FOR kids. Or, at least, not for kids exclusively.
The casting of all the kids in Super 8 is absolutely spot-on, and that’s half the battle right there. All of the kids come off as very genuine and natural (there weren’t any moments when I felt the kids were “acting”), and each one had very distinct personalities and character traits. Joel Courtney does a marvelous job as the lead character, Joe Lamb. Joe is a quiet, somewhat subdued child, but we can see a world of intelligence and emotions behind young Mr. Courtney’s eyes. I was quite taken, as well, by Riley Griffiths, who plays Joe’s filmmaking buddy Charles. He’s called upon to act obnoxious at times, but Riley is able to keep the character firmly grounded in real human emotions and behavior. Then there is Elle Fanning, who I thought was a revelation as Alice. This young lady is clearly a magnificent actor who I can see having a long career ahead of her. I was more impressed by her in this film than I have ever been by her more-famous older sister, Dakota Fanning. There’s a critical scene early in the film, in which Alice performs her first scene in the boys’ movie. As she delivers her lines, it becomes clear in an instant that, unlike the boys, Alice actually has the skills to be an actress, and we can see how Joe is enraptured by her in that moment. This scene has to work in order to sell their relationship throughout the rest of the film — and thanks to the skills of Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney, the scene work magnificently. (It is, in fact, one of my favorite scenes in the movie.)
Mr. Abrams and his team make an interesting choice, which I think winds up working very well for them, not to make this movie just about the kids. As we follow Joe’s story, we also follow that of his father, Jackson, who is a Sheriff’s Deputy. We see how the death of his wife has broken this man, and though of course the audience still sides with young Joe (as we’re intended to) in his conflicts with his dad, because we also spend a lot of time with Jackson, he is humanized in a way that lends more power, and potent emotion, to the scenes between father and son. Kyle Chandler is terrific in the role — showing us Jackson’s toughness but also allowing him to remain a sympathetic figure. Sheriff’s Deputy Jackson also provides us with a key window into the monster aspect of the story. As crazy things begin going down in their town, and the Sheriff disappears, Deputy Jackson becomes the point person for the investigation, and it his mostly through his eyes (rather than those of the kids) that we begin to put together the clues about what the heck is going on. That’s a smart narrative decision, as it avoids the need to have the kids involved in scenes that they’d never in a million years be involved in, just so the audience can get certain key bits of information.
Where the movie falls down, somewhat, is in the monster storyline. Oh, there are some very effective monster-on-the-loose sequences, don’t get me wrong. Mr. Abrams’ tremendous skills as a director really shine in an early sequence at a gas station (Kelvin gas, which made the Star Trek fan in me laugh). In this sequence the unfortunate town sheriff, and a hapless gas station attendant, encounter the monster. It’s a terrifically tense sequence, really well-staged, that had me on the edge of my seat. This is a sequence without any CGI effects — just good old-fashioned filmmaking to build up the scares. Mr. Abrams proves equally adept at the large-scale sequences that come late in the film, as all sorts of military-versus-monster mayhem tears apart the town. The large-scale carnage is depicted with a sure hand, as we get to revel in some of the wide-screen action while never losing sight of the geography of the characters and the town.
But whereas Joe’s emotional journey, and that of his father’s (and that of Alice’s, and that of Charles, etc. etc.) are all fleshed out with great detail and subtlety, when I walked out of the theater I found myself scratching my head about all sorts of plot-holes regarding the monster. We’re just not given enough information about what the monster was all about — what it was doing, and how it was doing it. (The one big exposition scene we do get is very clumsy, as the kids find a film-strip that basically tells them everything, very reminiscent of the dumb deus ex machina plot device found in Iron Man 2.) SPOILERS AHEAD, my friends. Why was the monster capturing all of the townspeople but not killing them? (And why did we SOMETIMES see the monster killing people??) Did the monster need those cubes to reconstitute its ship, or was it able to use any metal it could find? If the latter (as I think the film implies), then why couldn’t the monster have broken out of the military’s custody at any time? Speaking of which, what the heck was the military doing transporting this creature across the country, on a train that the professor was able to easily track as it crossed the United States?
The classic films of Steven Spielberg don’t leave you asking these sorts of plot questions. At the end of E.T., the audience isn’t asking questions about how his healing power worked. Those films fit together like clockwork, while Super 8 does not. It doesn’t destroy the film — the emotional story-lines of the characters totally swept me through the movie, and I still thoroughly enjoyed the film despite these plot holes. But this is the area where Super 8 fails to hold up to those classic films that it clearly aspires to be. The movie breaks, repeatedly, from the point of view of Joe and his father, to show us events that those two weren’t privy to (specifically the plotting of the devious military men) — so why not just add in an extra scene or two that could give us some slightly more concrete information about the creature? I think that would have helped a lot.
While I’m discussing the creature, I also must admit that I’m a bit lukewarm on the creature’s design. There were some moments when I thought it really worked — specifically the moments when you’d see the creature creepily unfurl itself like a huge claw come to life — and there’s no question that the monster was realized by computer effects artists at the top of their game. The creature is completely life-like, and 100% perfectly integrated into every scene. But on the other hand, I’md starting to feel a creeping sameness to the monsters in J.J. Abrams-connected films. The Cloverfield monster, the monster that chases Kirk on the ice planet in Star Trek, and now this creature all have a very similar look to them. All are super-cool in the moment, but none of them have the easily-recognizable look or silhouette of a classic movie monster (the creature from Alien, E.T., etc.). I’m sure I couldn’t draw this creature at all, after having seen the film, and I think that indicates a certain weakness of design.
OK, enough nit-picking!
It was an enormous thrill seeing the Amblin logo (Steven Spielberg’s production company) at the opening of Super 8, after far too long an absence from our cinema screens. This is a terrific film, and it sits proudly among the great Amblin Entertainment releases that I remember from my youth. It might not be a masterpiece, but it’s a damn fine piece of entertainment. As I reflect back on the three films that J.J. Abrams has directed (Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek, and now Super 8) — all fine films, though all somewhat flawed — I find myself echoing a comment I have read in many reviews of Super 8: if J.J. Abrams can ever get his hands on a really top-flight script, the man is going to be unstoppable.