Release Date: June 10, 2011
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writer: J.J. Abrams
Stars: Elle Fanning, Amanda Michalka, Kyle Chandler
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Super 8 is the antithesis of modern filmmaking. Hollywood’s go to move these days is updating old films in a modern context, using buzzwords like “reboot” and “gritty reimagining,” but Super 8 is an original story that is designed to feel vintage.
Set in 1979, it feels quite a bit like a “lost” Steven Spielberg film, very much in the vein of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It has many of the hallmarks of those classic films, including a small town setting, a group of curious teenagers, a heavy dose of unexplained phenomenons and the military invading the town in full cover up mode. (It’s not hard to see why Spielberg signed on as a producer for the film.) Overall, it’s a pleasant walk down memory lane for anyone who loved Spielberg’s early work. It’s just too bad the film doesn’t have a better ending.
Abrams is a brilliant idea man. He’s one of the most creative and intriguing minds in Hollywood today. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems like Abrams isn’t able to flesh out an idea past that original pitch. Super 8 undoubtedly sounded amazing when he sold it to Spielberg and the studio heads. The film has looked phenomenal in two-minute trailers. But as a two-hour film, it loses steam as it goes along and ultimately falls apart. The movie centers around a group of kids filming a zombie movie on their Super 8 camera who inadvertently witness a military train derailment and the unexplained incidents that begin cropping up soon afterwards. It’s fun to watch those early scenes and to see the mystery slowly unfold, but the film falls flat in the end and the payoff to the big mystery seems really underwhelming.
The best scenes in the film tend to have nothing to do with the derailed train and its supernatural cargo. The moments that I really enjoyed were the quiet scenes where the kids shot their goofy monster movie. Joel Courtney (who plays Joe) and Elle Fanning (who plays Alice) were surprisingly great in the lead roles as two teens who begin to fall for each other while filming the movie (a relationship that is complicated by the fact that their parents don’t want them hanging out with each other). Abrams asks a lot of them in this film, but they pull off their scenes together incredibly well and their relationship feels very authentic.
Kyle Chandler is also really great as Joe’s father, Deputy Jackson Lamb. Jackson is raising Joe on his own and he must find a way to balance the responsibilities of being a single dad with the responsibilities of being a small town sheriff in a time when strange things are happening and the military is not being forthcoming with answers. Chandler began to build buzz for himself with his role as Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights, so this role in Super 8 should hopefully be the one that cements him as a leading man.
The rest of the cast is really solid as well. However, through no fault of the actors, there are quite a few scenes in the film that just don’t work. One major problem is that Abrams tries to throw slang terms from the era into the dialogue, which generally comes off feeling really forced and awkward, particularly in the lines given to Joe’s friend Charles (Riley Griffiths). Also, most of Abrams’ attempts at lighter, comedic moments just don’t work at all and failed to generate any laughs at the screening I attended.
In general, Abrams seems to struggle with the overall tone of the film. At times, it seems like he can’t decide what he wants the movie to be – a sweet coming of age story with a supernatural backdrop, an emotional story about love and loss or an all out sci fi action film. But the biggest problem with Super 8 is the ending.
Without giving anything away, it just devolves into a generic monster movie where characters are running for their lives. At that point, setting it in the 1970s and giving it a distinct vintage feels no longer matters, it just begins to play out like all of the other sci fi disaster movie you’ve seen before. The plot begins to unravel and a lot of the climax doesn’t make much sense, but Abrams is hoping that he’s thrown in enough explosions and carnage that you won’t notice.
It’s really disappointing. There is so much to like about Super 8 and since it is something different than the typical Hollywood fare, I really wanted it to succeed. Unfortunately, instead of being a great homage to Spielberg’s early work, it instead ends up feeling like a sad reminder that that era of filmmaking is long gone.
(If you do go see Super 8 though, make sure you stay through the credits, which include a completed version of the zombie film the kids are making throughout Super 8. It ends up being much more enjoyable and heartfelt than the movie itself.)
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.