The less cynical you are, the more you’ll enjoy Super 8. Probably. Simply because you’ll be able to forgive more readily what feels like a copy of a copy of earlier, better kids-eye-view science fiction, namely from Super 8‘s Executive Producer Steven Spielberg. Your kids might like it though…unless they’ve already seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind or [INSERT any Spielberg movie made before the Award Whoring Color Purple] or any of a dozen movies Super 8 feels like it’s pilfering from in writer/director J.J. Abrams diverting if ultimately disappointing follow-up to 2009’s Star Trek reboot. Perhaps the expectations were too high, as you’d expect when you combine the Alpha Dog and Beta Pup of A-list geekery from the past 35 years in Spielberg and Abrams. You get the feeling Spielberg watched Super 8 thinking to himself, “Nice Try J.J., but I did it so much better years ago.” Even if Spielberg didn’t think that, any viewer familiar with late 70s/early 80s Spielberg will. The movie lays on the nostalgia nice and syrupy thick and forgets that while you’re remembering the good times…there should be a movie that stands on its own there somewhere, not a blueprint for one. You see the archetypes and common tropes for the movies Super 8 references, but all that does is make you want to watch those all the more.
And what does it say when the near-magical end credits are the most engaging part of the movie? It says that Super 8 is barely a step up from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and do with that what you will.
Time for some SPOILER TALK! Below are SPOILERS for Super 8. Feel free to add your thoughts in the Comments section.
Super 8 opens sometime in the early 80s. We know this because we hear Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and guys are just starting to shorten their sideburns and toy with a newfangled invention called the Walkman. Probably around the same time Alfred Molina wanted to trade the Idol for the whip. It’s a stereotypical movie town that revolves around a steel mill….but we’ve got our sad faces on because someone died.
Our lead character Elliot…I mean Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is down in the dumps because his mom is dead. Not just dead but crushed by steel while she was working in the mill. This rather manipulative and heavy-handed writer’s stroke is used to put the audience on Joe’s side, because it’s hard NOT to like a kid whose mom was just crushed to death. Unless that kid’s a dick. But don’t worry, none of the characters are developed well enough to have any sort of dimension beyond black-and-white.
Joe’s dad is named Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler). He’s a sheriff’s deputy and now he’s going to have to raise Joe alone. This puts the audience on Jack’s side because he’s a noble single father trying to make his way in the world and trying to deal with the grief from the death of his newly flattened wife. We see that Jack is emotionally closed off and doesn’t know a thing about being an available father. Mom did the child rearing before a couple of tons of steel allowed her to be scooped up with a spatula. It’s like…when his wife was condensed from a size 6 to a size 0.06, Jack’s heart was like, crushed as well. Deep.
The movie FF’s four months later and Joe’s mom is still dead (No!).
The Good news is school is out (Yay!).
Now Joe and his friend Chunk, I mean Charles, can finish the film they’ve been making. Charles is an aspiring filmmaker and he, Joe, and some other friends have been making a zombie film called The Case which Charles wants to enter into a film festival. The other members of the Monster Squad are Cary (Ryan Lee) and Martin (Gabriel Sasso) and one other unimportant kid whose name isn’t worth remembering. These movie kids say “˜Shit’, just like in ET. You half expect someone to be called “˜penis breath’. Martin is one of the actors and Cary’s only character trait is that he likes to blow shit up…which will probably serve later during a crucial moment. Remember, Cary likes explosives. The movie hammers this into your head so much during the first 20 minutes you expect the climax to involve a red and blue wire.
There’s one more member of the crew. Her name is Alice (Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota Fanning, who starred in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds – must run in the family), and she’s a (gasp) girl. Joe, you know, kinda, you know, likes her. Alice is an actress in the movie and you can tell that Joe, you know, likes her the way he coyly applies makeup to her while concealing a preteen boner. Alice’s dad is an alcoholic (of course), who may have had something to do with Joe’s mom being killed, so we should enjoy Alice as a child before she becomes a pole dancer. So much innocence…about to be shattered.
While they’re filming a key scene with Charles’ Super 8 camera alongside some railroad tracks and an open [Clover]field, Joe notices a pickup truck trying to play reverse chicken with an oncoming train by getting on the tracks. If you remember the first trailers, truck and train collide and PG-13 heck breaks loose. The train derails and…something seems to have escaped from the wreckage, but there’s too much going on to properly focus on it and it’s WAY too early in the movie to get a clear shot of the creature that emerges. The truck looks like it’s been totaled and Joe and the crew from The Sandlot notice that the driver’s still alive. How convenient! Perhaps the driver can give them just enough exposition to let the audience know what’s going on. It turns out that Joe and the other Goonies actually know the guy in the truck. How doubly convenient! It’s their physics teacher Mr. Woodward (Glynn Turman). He warns them not to tell anybody about what they’ve seen and shot or else…
Or else they will be killed along with their parents by nefarious government types from a secret wing of the government that deals specifically with hick towns and possible alien life forms. The BMX Bandits are worried because they don’t want their parents to die. Joe is only half as worried because one of his parents is already dead. They don’t have time to talk about it any more because military vehicles are making their way to the crash site. They thank Mr. Woodward for the valuable exposition and for being the only black person in town.
The Government trucks descend and a lot of guys with worried looks look worriedly at the debris, as if something important, maybe even dangerous, escaped.
Luckily, Joe and the Apple Dumpling gang make it out of there with their lives, if not their film equipment intact. They vow to keep this to themselves. Charles is worried about his movie.
It’s the morning after…
– The train crash is all over the news. Mr. Woodward is being painted as a loon and “being taken care of” at an undisclosed government location. Perhaps Joe should have asked Mr. Woodward to say hi to his dead mom.
– Simple machines like microwaves and televisions are disappearing in bulk and the townsfolk are looking for a scapegoat. Their pitchforks have been taken as well so they can’t even hold those in anger. There’s only one minority in this town, and Mr. Woodward’s accounted for, so they can’t necessarily blame him no matter how hard they try. It’s simple…they blame it on the Soviets.
-The Sheriff and other citizens are missing, so it’s up to Jack to run the show. He’s been trying to get the manifest from the train, but in the tradition of One-Dimensional Evil Government Characters, Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) has been stonewalling. Maybe Bishop (Lance Henriksen) knows something about The Company’s true motives. Maybe the Colonel is trying to cover something up. Jack surmises this because of the numerous trucks with the words “Cover Up Crew” stenciled on their trailers. Maybe if it weren’t for all those meddling fucking kids they would have gotten away with all of this.
– Numerous cats and dogs seem to have run away to neighboring towns, making the audience wonder if somehow it’s an Asian alien life form. Don’t worry, I’m Asian and I can write generalizations like that and have it not sound racist…but merely stereotypical.
-Of course there is the small, or rather, large matter of the being itself. The Government seems to want the creature contained, and the town along with it no matter what the cost. For what purpose? Joe and the other young actors better find out quickly before the creature or the government officials cause more people to disappear and then it really will be the silence of the Lambs.
One of the few movies Super 8 doesn’t appear to be ripping off.
What works with Super 8–
1) If only the rest of the movie were like its end credits, then we’d have a new summer classic instead of a mostly unsuccessful rehash. A great deal of the audience left as the credits ran…but those who stayed had a better time during the last five minutes that the previous 100.
2) The train crash is the best staged sequence in the movie, giving you an actual sense of danger that you feel in no other part of in Super 8. Amidst the staged chaos, director Abrams lets you know exactly where everyone is in relation to the train so you’re sweating even though you know no kid in a PG-13 movie is going to die this early into it.
What doesn’t work-
1) A particularly draggy middle post-crash, not aided by the fact that none of the kid characters are particularly well drawn. Every kid reminds you of a different movie kid from another better movie, making the non-alien details of the story feel like you’ve seen it all before. Which you have.
2) (SPOILER) Not too much of a spoiler to reveal that there is a creature involved…and as far as movie monsters go, it’s pretty disappointing, almost generic. Like something Spielberg rejected from one of his earlier movies. Then again, Super 8 feels like one of young Spielberg’s first drafts before he rewrote it into something more engaging and genuinely scary.
Overall. If your kids force you to see it, try and take solace in the fact that your DVD collection has about 20 selections that would be more entertaining than Super 8 and you can drown it down with one of those after you get home. Or you can leave the kids in the theater and watch X-Men again. Don’t worry. They’ll be safe. But, if you’re one of those crotchety people that like to bellyache about how things used to be better back in the olden days…then you’d be right. Better than Super 8, anyway.