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Review: Super 8

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The way that I figure it, the part that Super 8 director/screenwriter J.J. Abrams most enjoyed watching in his latest film is when the Amblin logo comes up on the screen and hangs there for five seconds. Super 8 is a unabashed love letter to classic Spielbergian coming of age adventures from the 1980s: E.T., The Goonies, Explorers, Gremlins, Back to the Future. Strangely enough, the actual guts of Super 8 owe more to two of Spielberg's earlier movies, and ones that don't hang the story on pre-teens, namely Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

This makes watching Abrams's picture something of a strangely surreal experience: here's a new movie produced by Spielberg but written, directed and envisioned by a different director. Super 8 really is J.J. Abrams saying "I love you, man" to Steven Spielberg.

But that same desire to walk in The Beard's shoes is also what constrains Super 8 from becoming what it should be: a movie that reminds you of those childhood movies but also establishes itself with its own beat and cadence. This is a movie that tries so hard to be one of those fantastic adventures directed by Steven Spielberg that it misses being a new experience.

Our story takes place in 1979 and follows a troop of five boys that are making a zombie movie. If you're of the same age bracket as me, back in 1979 90% of boys who were dreaming of making their own movies wanted to make their own Star Wars. (Zombies weren't cool like they are today, but I'll grant Abrams the creative leap to tell his story.) Enter a sixth member of the team, Alice (Elle Fanning), and when the budding filmmakers sneak out past midnight one night they accidentally film a train derailment and capture something unearthly on their film. Throw in a strained father-son dynamic (Kyle Chandler as the sheriff's deputy dad and Joel Courtney as the makeup FX son) and mysterious military soldiers trying to cover up the true nature of what escaped from the train and Super 8 becomes not so much a next generation Amblin movie but more of a copycat.

The material with the kids is fantastic. Abrams cast the picture well, and all six kids are amazing to watch. Every scene they're in, especially in the first half of the picture, feels weighed and real. About that first half of Super 8: it's really more of a drama than a science fiction or quasi-scary monster movie. The scenes with the monster have good jumps, but they just don't feel quite at home amongst the dramatic material the kids are going through, especially Courtney's Joe and Fanning's Alice. If Super 8 had veered off and been a movie about a bunch of Ohio kids trying to make their zombie movie, and of two of them trying to heal from a shared tragedy, it may have stood a solid chance at being a terrific movie, more along the lines of Stand By Me.

But I guess that if Abrams had removed the monster aspect of the film, it would be missing that sci-fi element so ingrained in those early Amblin movies. Super 8's second half has more monster in it, but by the end of the picture Abrams is showing that he wants his Steven Spielberg cake and to eat it too. Super 8's critter starts off with having the same kind of mortal menace that Jaws had for Bruce the shark, but by the film's final act, Abrams wants us to shift emotional gears and make us feel empathy and then wonder for the creature. That works in a film like Close Encounters of the Third Kind because Spielberg wisely chose to focus the start of his movie on the scary aspect of the UFO phenomena, that you don't know what it is. With Jaws, you know precisely why you should be scared of the shark: it wants to kill and eat you.

Imagine if, just about the time that Richard Dreyfuss goes down in his shark cage, Spielberg gave us a moment where he tried to make us understand that the shark isn't a villain to be feared and overcome, it's just really an animal swimming in the ocean that doesn't know better than to eat people. Would that moment when Roy Scheider blows Bruce up have felt as good if we emphasized with the great white? Would we have been as scared and shocked seeing Robert Shaw getting eaten alive if we had just been told 10 minutes earlier that the shark is just doing what nature meant it to do?

That's a major fault with Super 8; Abrams wants us to be scared of his monster for the first half, then make it our friend as Elliott did with E.T., then go back to being scared of it, then shift again to wonder and amazement à la Close Encounters. This kind of seesawing hurts the empathetic goodwill that Abrams built so well in the first half of his film, and it also reduces Super 8 to being a pastiche of early Spielberg (Jaws, Duel, Close Encounters) and later Spielberg (E.T., Gremlins, Explorers, Goonies.) Like oil and vinegar, the two Spielbergs have trouble mixing. When Spielberg has to make his monsters villainous as well as full of wonderment, he's able to find the right presentation of the story and of the fantastic beasts, like Jurassic Park.

Still, Super 8 is an enjoyable movie and could even be called a fun summer adventure. The monster does seem to be capable of surviving and doing just about anything that calls for the plot to advance, so you do need to let go of that. Luckily, those early scenes where Abrams sets up the characters and where they are in their emotions granted me the good will to go along for the amusement ride. Just don't expect me to put this ride up there in my top 10 rollercoaster experiences, or even top 20 or 30.

And J.J., we get it. You love lens flares. They are cool to look at. Now please, let's cut them down by half as much for your next movie.

Review Score: 60 / 100

Patrick Sauriol
Location: Canada
Posts: 20119
Posted: 8 years 26 weeks ago

And stick around through the credits. There's something there for you to watch, and it was thoughtful of Abrams to include that story with its beginning-middle-end.

No matter where you go, there you are.
Jakester
Location:
Posts: 5753
Posted: 8 years 26 weeks ago

It seems as though all of the geek critics have the same criticism of the movie.  Ebert, however, gave it 3.5 stars.  Go figure.

In watching the rehearsal scene (just before the train crash) that's online, it was obvious that Abrams was just as lens-flare crazy as he was in Star Trek.  Ugh.  I like them, too.  Just not ALL THE TIME.

It's definitely a movie I want to see, but given the reviews, I'll adjust my expectations accordingly, and hopefully won't be too let down.

Richard Gozinya, Harold Snatch and Wilbur Jizz. Together we are the law firm Gozinya, Snatch and Jizz.
Adam54
Location:
Posts: 2082
Posted: 8 years 26 weeks ago

 Just got back. It rocked. I think it may have rocked more for me than for Patrick because I'm from the younger generation and don't have quite the experience of living through the 80s and seeing all of the movies he mentioned when they were new and amazing. So I get the criticism, but respectfully disagree. I think this has the potential to go down for us 90s and 00s kids in the same way that E.T., Close Encounters, et. al. did for you 70s and 80s kids. 

Adam54
Location:
Posts: 2082
Posted: 8 years 26 weeks ago

 Oh and I agree. Regardless of what you think of the rest of the movie, stick around through the credits. That was awesome and completely without lens flares!