4 out of 5 stars
Is JJ Abrams our generation’s Spielberg? That’s a question that Super 8 will definitely raise, as it’s not only produced by Spielberg himself, but incredibly reminiscent of many of his earlier films. It also is a legitimate questions when you look at Abrams’ batting average during his very short time as a mainstream director. His first film was the acclaimed Mission Impossible III, which brought back realism to an action genre overdosing on CGI special effects. Then he veered into sci-fi, successfully rebooting Star Trek as a blockbuster franchise for an entirely new generation, beloved by critics and audiences alike. Now he’s crafted Super 8, a kind of sci-fi monster film that simply doesn’t really exist anymore, at least not outside of Abrams himself, who also produced Cloverfield.
With only three films under his belt, it’s tough to say for certain that the comparison stands up to Spielberg’s long history of 40+ movies that include the likes of Jaws, ET, Close Encounters, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. Will Abrams work stand the test of time the way those films have? Will we still be watching Star Trek in 30 years? Maybe. Super 8? I’m not so sure.
It’s a question that we can’t answer now, but it’s interesting to draw parallels between Abrams newest effort and Spielberg’s classics. It’s a sort of amalgam between the childish wonderment at the unexplained found in ET and the maddening mystery of otherworldly events in Close Encounters.
“I don’t think it wants any Reese’s Pieces.”
Super 8 tells the story of Joe (Joel Courtney) a young boy who has recently lost his mother in an industrial accident, and his emotionally distant sheriff’s deputy father (Kyle Chandler) must step up and fill that void. Joe occupies his time doing make-up and special effects for a Super 8 monster movie with his friends, and his attention is caught by the young Alice (Elle Fanning) who volunteers to play a part in the film.
The gang is filming a scene one night when a train races by their location. The cameras are rolling to capture increased “production value” and manage to document a disastrous event where a car driving on the tracks derails the entire train. Barely escaping with their lives, they must run from the Air Force guards who immediately swoop in to secure the payload, cargo which has escaped out into the night.
And that’s the central mystery of Super 8, figuring out what was in that train, and what it’s doing in a town where dogs are running away, electronics are being stolen and people are disappearing. This aspect is the most closely guarded of perhaps any plot point of a movie I’ve seen all year, and so I won’t say much more about it.
“That damn thing pissed in my wiper fluid!”
What I will say is that I believe the human drama found in the film, a young boy and his father dealing with the loss of their wife and mother, the friendship he has with his movie making pals and a budding relationship with a first crush, actually far outweighs the central mystery of the creature and its motivations.
The young actors that populate this film are simply phenomenal. Joel Courtney was plucked from absolute obscurity for this part, which can be verified by his IMDB page having exactly one role on it. Elle Fanning is indeed the younger sister of Dakota, but seems mature beyond her years here as Alice and I’m fairly certain she doesn’t let out an ear-piercing scream once. Joe’s entire group of friends is the most believable I’ve seen since say, The Sandlot, The Goonies or the last time there was a memorable group of kids together starring in a film meant for all ages. Kids just don’t have adventures like this in movies anymore, and I’m hard pressed to think of a film that starred a bunch of children in recent memory that wasn’t exceptionally juvenile. Only titles like Spy Kids come to mind, and that’s just proving my point.
Ms. Fanning outdoes her entire sister’s catalog with this one role.
The other half of this film I don’t think works quite as well. The acting and drama of Joe and Alice’s adventures seem a bit out of pace with the people snatching monster lurking about town. The film slowly explains what it is, and why it’s here, and it ends up being a story we’ve heard before, with only a few new tweaks to make it different for this film. ET was a success not just because of an adorable Drew Barrymore, but because of her relationship with the alien in question. We got to relate to it, and though we have a similar group of kids racing around town while a strange creature lurks, there’s no actual relationship there, and at times the film feels like a generic slasher film, with a creature taking the place of a knife-wielding maniac.
JJ Abrams is a fan of the “mystery box” storytelling philosophy where he hides as much as he can to create suspense and build tension. It’s why so many were obsessed with Lost and Alias, and it’s how Cloverfield generated so much buzz. Something similar was employed for Super 8, but once that box is opened, in a moment where the kids literally sit down and watch a movie explaining every detail of the creature’s history, the film after that just isn’t quite what it was in the first two thirds.
Creature issues aside, there’s no denying how expertly made this film is. To get such powerful performances out of children, and make the film funny, touching and scary all at once is no easy feat. However you feel about the grand mystery of the plot, there’s no denying how much Super 8 shines in its quieter moments, and it’s unexpected for a film alleged to be this intense to have this much heart.
4 out of 5 stars