The latest mega-hyped project from the master of mega-hype, J.J. Abrams, is a cross between a monster movie and a homage to movies produced by Steven Spielberg from the late 70s to late 80s, predominantly, and it’s the latter aspect that proves to be the undoing of something that could have been great.
It’s a sad day. Young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother in an industrial accident, his father (Kyle Chandler) has lost his wife. And then we move forward by four months. Joe is helping his friends make their own zombie movie when they find themselves witnessing a huge train crash. They don’t know what the train was carrying but things soon start getting a bit strange in their town and the military are quick to get on the scene. It soon becomes clear that there’s something monstrous at large and the kids may be the only ones able to do anything about it, thanks to their bravery and the fact that the camera kept rolling during the train crash and may have caught an image of just what was set free to cause havoc.
There’s plenty to enjoy in Super 8 and many people already love the movie. I won’t ever convince them that my reasons for not loving the thing are sound but I’ll give it a good try.
All of the pieces fit but they don’t make for a satisfying whole movie. The young actors are all excellent but are saddled with far too many scenes in which they do the whole wide-and-moist-eyed routine (aka doing a “Fanning”, ironic considering that Elle Fanning also stars in this film and is, of course, the sister of Dakota). Joel Courtney is naturalistic in the few scenes when his character is not being used to emotionally manipulate the audience, Fanning is actually quite a good young actress with a severely reduced role in the final act, Riley Griffiths is very good as the wannabe film director, Ryan Lee raises a smile as a young lad who loves explosions, Gabriel Basso is just there and Zach Mills does enough subtle comedy work to endear him to family audiences. Kyle Chandler is just fine as the local deputy and father still grieving the loss of his wife and Ron Eldard is okay as the man that Chandler loathes but the two also get saddled with some horribly neat and predictable character arcs. Noah Emmerich is as good as he usually is, this time in the role of the military man trying to clean up and contain a huge mess.
The writing and directing are where things start to fall apart and J.J. Abrams is responsible for both. Things start off promisingly enough, character sketches are quick and satisfying and we get time to know the youngsters. But as things plod along it quickly becomes clear that Super 8 is, essentially, more of a homage-filled pastiche than an entertaining film in its own right. Those American suburban neighbourhoods that Spielberg filled with sci-fi and adventure in some of his best directorial outings are given their time in the limelight once again. Kids are free to enjoy being kids while also proving their mettle in times of stress. Everything feels comfortable and “safe”, even during times of menace. And then we have the dollops of sentimentality and emotional manipulation, mimicry of the worst of Speilberg’s few occasional failings (in my view).
The build-up is excellent, and Super 8 has a great middle section, but the pay-off undermines everything that has come before it with a lack of logic and a number of plot points simply dismissed in favour of doe-eyed, touchy-feely sweetness.
The effects and moments of destruction onscreen are very well done, with my only two complaints in this department being a) how much the monster seemed to resemble the monster in Cloverfield (both in terms of design and how it was shot) and b) those bloody lens flares that appeared in almost every scene. Those who disliked the effect in Star Trek, where it at least felt a little more justified, will undoubtedly hate it here. It doesn’t remind me of E.T. or other childhood favourites, it’s just bloody annoying and I wish Mr. Abrams would stop overusing the effect.
Now that the mystery is all gone is it possible to pinpoint just what Super 8 is? A monster movie with a disappointing lack of focus on the monster mayhem. A fanboy attempt to recapture the essence of pre-millenial Spielberg movies. A film showing how that four months should really be the maximum amount of time grief should be allowed to darken your mood. A misfiring, misjudged mix of all of these things with occasional moments of greatness making you wish that the material had been handed over to, say, Joe Dante (a man who CAN do this kind of thing better and with the edge it clearly needed).
P.S. Keep watching the end credits for a real highlight, a chance to see “The Case”, the zombie movie made by the characters in the film.
DIRECTOR: J.J. ABRAMS
CAST: JOEL COURTNEY, KYLE CHANDLER, ELLE FANNING, RILEY GRIFFITHS, RYAN LEE, GABRIEL BASSO, ZACH MILLS, RON ELDARD
RUNTIME: 112 MINS APPROX