Super 8, the new film from Star Trek rebooter J.J. Abrams, is not without its pleasures. For one thing, it packs a lot of movie onto the screen. In fact, there are three different movies playing at the same time.
The first, and best, movie is a time capsule of 1979, lovingly recreated through costumes, dialog, and bedroom sets packed with a fortune in vintage collectibles. The nostalgia value for viewers in their thirties and forties is high.
Onto this canvas, Abrams brings a group of kids trying to make a zombie movie with Super 8 cameras. This is the second film you will be purchasing a ticket for. You’ll eventually get to see it in its entirety, and it’s a lot of goofy fun.
The third movie is the one you probably came to see, a sci-fi chiller about an alien presence unleashed on a small town during a spectacular train crash. Unfortunately, this is by far the weakest part of the Super 8 experience.
It pains me to say it, but this film is a failure. It’s not awful or unwatchable. It’s just that Abrams seems to be trying to do a lot with Super 8, and he doesn’t really achieve any of it.
This is meant to be an homage to Steven Spielberg classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, and above all, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It falls far short of those films. The kids do some decent acting, especially Elle Fanning, but the characters are not up to the standard of the Goonies, or Eliot and his pals from E.T. They’re not funny or flamboyant enough to hold the focus of the film. Their story just doesn’t seem worth the amount of money spent to tell it.
Another comparison that jumps to mind is Stephen King’s It, which brought a much more fully-developed band of young heroes together to face a sinister force. For a while, it seems like Super 8 wants to be a shockingly dark take on E.T., in which the lovable Reese’s Pieces-munching muppet is replaced a man-eating horror. Perhaps we’re about to watch our teenage adventurers, filled with wide-eyed innocence and a youthful faith in their own invulnerability, walk into a meat grinder.
That never really happens. The creature is as disappointing as the kids, and also doesn’t seem worth the effort expended to bring him to life. He bears a significant resemblance to another J.J. Abrams creation, which might be lazy, playful, or perhaps even quite deliberate on the part of the filmmakers. The ending to Super 8 becomes a kind of divine comedy if this movie is viewed as the prequel to a certain shaky-cam horror flick from a couple of years ago. Maybe the alien from Super 8 is an immature specimen of its species, and it returns for a big night in New York when it grows up.
Projects that spring from Abrams’ fertile imagination tend to have problems with their endings, as those disappointed by the cop-out finale of Lost would testify. Sometimes it’s because Abrams himself wanders away from the project, as was the case with Lost. He reportedly put a lot of effort into Super 8, even delaying the hotly-anticipated sequel to his enormously successful Star Trek reboot to get this film done. Like other Abrams projects, it has an intriguing beginning, but nothing really pays off.
A lot of energy is put into developing the relationship between the kids and their parents, especially the hero’s cop father and Elle Fanning’s bitter drunk of a dad, but the script basically shoves them into a penalty box for the entire third reel and makes them irrelevant to the finale. Fanning herself becomes a mission objective, instead of a character. The storytellers send some very confusing signals about how they want us to view the creature in the end. You must be willing to forgive a lot to extend the level of sympathy they seem to be asking for.
The biggest problem with the script for Super 8 is its portrayal of the military, which comes across as the biggest gang of witless, pointlessly vicious buffoons since Cobra started recruiting troops to do battle with G.I. Joe. The plot demands a simply staggering level of abject stupidity and malice from the military, who set the story in motion by inexplicably deciding to transport the most dangerous organism on the planet by train (and they’re the Air Force!) along with a car full of something the creature desperately wants.
The most important operation in the history of the entire human race has been placed under the command of a dim-witted psychopath, who apparently has limitless resources and absolutely no oversight. Later, we learn that he worked very hard, for many years, to get the creature good and pissed off. In the finale, the military is completely unprepared to deal with an ability they have watched the creature display repeatedly, during more than a decade of captivity, which leads to much collateral damage.
On the hunt for the escaped creature, the Air Force is easily outwitted by a gang of teenagers, in no small part because they were too dumb to pay attention to what their own scientists had been trying to tell them. The military pointlessly antagonizes the local police, whose willing cooperation and knowledge of the area would have been invaluable. At one point, an Air Force officer takes a priceless heirloom away from the hero, just because the military guy is a jerk. The military even takes over civilian radio frequencies, in a plot point that makes very little practical sense, but allows the civilian characters to complain about how inconsiderate and oppressive the Air Force is.
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, watch the finale carefully, and ask yourself why the Air Force helpfully parked a truck full of that resource the creature vitally needs right next to its lair. A very big deal was made of showing the evil military guys lugging this stuff out of town in sinister red trucks, but somehow one of those trucks ends up parked right at Ground Zero. The Senate Subcommittee for Secret Alien Detention Projects must have been very busy in the fall of 1979, trying to figure out who authorized all this idiocy.
A few years ago, there was some controversy over Spielberg’s decision to use CGI to remove guns from the hands of government agents, and replace them with walkie talkies, in a special edition of E.T. Now we’ve got J.J. Abrams putting fangs and claws on E.T., and removing the brains of the government agents.
It’s not really clear what he was trying to accomplish here, other than produce a highlight reel of late 70s and early 80s sci-fi movies. Super 8 is at its best when providing a time capsule of those bygone days, reminding us of the crazy adventures we had with our middle-school friends. The train crash, and a creepy alien encounter at a convenience store, are very well done. Otherwise, the film unleashes a huge budget and elaborate 21st-century special effects in a largely failed effort to imitate better movies from the Spielberg glory days, without saying anything really new about those hallowed treasures of our popular culture.