J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg are two of my favorite filmmakers. Separately, they brought us Star Trek and Indiana Jones and Alias and Saving Private Ryan. When I heard they would be working together on Super 8, Abrams as writer/director and Spielberg as producer, I thought: “well this is going to be fabulous. Obviously.” They were a bit cagey with the story in the trailers, but from what I could see it went something like this:
In 1979 a group of friends filming a home movie witness the crash of an Air Force train that sets a mysterious monster loose on their small Ohio town and they defy the military crackdown in order to investigate.
It sounded like a decent (if fairly standard) basis for a science fiction movie. I assumed with Abrams and Spielberg at the helm, it couldn’t be anything but brilliant, and that they were just being cagey in order to hide all the mind-blowing plot twists. But now, after having seen Super 8, I can honestly say that I don’t understand why this movie needed to made at all, much less by two geniuses.
The “real” movie critics, who are falling all over themselves to compliment Super 8, use words like “homage” and “tribute” to describe it, but that’s just code for “we’ve seen it all before.” Usually homages are simply one part of a new and different story, but there’s nothing new about Super 8. The whole thing is just a recombinant version of plotlines and ideas from other movies. Granted, Abrams drew on material from a lot of other films, including E.T., Stand By Me, District 9, Son of Rambow, Crazies, Cloverfield, and an episode of Eureka, but he forgot to throw in a twist or angle that made it different.
Besides, isn’t it kind of arrogant to do a homage to yourself?
Don’t get me wrong, the movie isn’t badly made or unfun to watch, it’s just generic, which is completely and utterly shocking given who made it. Starting off, you’ve got your standard parental death. Joe (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mom, who is the only one who understands him, blah blah blah, leaving him with his dad (Kyle Chandler) who is a cop and largely ignores him in favor of cop things.
Hey dad. Remember me? The kid you’re supposed to be looking after?
DAD: I love you so much!
JOE: I love YOU so much!
In the meantime, however, Joe’s escape from his crappy home life is the movie he’s helping his bossy friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make. Together with their friends Cary (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso), Preston (Zach Mills) and Alice (Elle Fanning), they’re filming a zombie movie on super 8 for a local film festival. With the exception of the token girl, this group resembles the Stand By Me standard both in terms of looks and personality. There’s the fat kid, the nerd, the bad kid, and the clean cut All-American kid who are bossy (Charles), shy (Preston), nervous (Martin), crazy (Carey), and an unassuming leader type (Joe). One day while they’re shooting at the train station, there’s an enormous train crash that they just happen to catch on film.
All six of them also just happen to survive it, which should not have been possible,
but the plot required it, so it was.
Up until this point Charles was always their leader, but Joe’s obsession with the train crash, which was caused by one of his teachers, drives him to lead the others in an investigation of the crash and the weird things that have been happening around town (flickering lights, missing machinery, roars and bangs, people disappearing, funny little pieces of something lying around, etc.)
Maybe if we poke it, something will happen.
It almost goes without saying that Joe will also develop a relationship with Alice, who also has no mother (it’s like a rule in story land that no main characters can ever have two parents). He’s not supposed to see her because their dads hate each other for stupid reasons that have to do with the circumstances surrounding Joe’s mother’s death, so of course there’s conflict there that leads to a “dads bonding/getting over things” angle once the kids get into big trouble.
This is one of several subplots that made me think “and now I should be touched”
instead of actually being touched.
Big trouble isn’t long in coming because the Air Force, led by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) descend on their town like a fat kid on a Smartie, take over the police investigation and forcibly evacuate the entire town. They’re apparently all dumb as stones, though, because a gaggle of twelve years olds find a variety of obvious evidence that the Air Force overlooked and figure out (in a few hours) a mystery that’s been plaguing them for something like fifteen years.
What, this old thing? Yeah we found it in a box labeled: “evidence that I am hiding from the Air Force.”
Abrams did everything right as far as filming the monster does. All the snatchings and weird occurrences are shot at careful angles so that it’s more than halfway through the film before we even catch a glimpse of the thing.
Oh no! What is that THING?! Etc.
However, he falls down completely when it comes to making what the thing is a surprise. I won’t tell you what it is, just in case you haven’t guessed, but I will say that I had a thought at to what it was as soon as I saw the Air Force logo on the train, and I was depressingly correct. There aren’t even any red herrings to throw clever guessers off. It’s almost like you were supposed to know, but if that’s the case why go to so much trouble hiding it and keeping the plot under wraps?
Wow, your engines really are missing! It must be an insane winch operator with a grudge against you!
It also really annoyed me that there’s only one girl in the entire movie and instead of being an actual part of the group she just ends up being the standard damsel in distress character that the boys are trying to rescue. I know it’s an “homage” to the films of the 70s and 80s, but do we have to homage all the bad parts of that era too?
Come on, guys. Buck up. We need to rescue the princess… I mean our friend.
Overall the movie looked good and was relatively entertaining (compared to Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, at least, which was my other choice this week) but I just wasn’t blown away by it like the “real” critics. It’s definitely good enough for the average person to see for two hours of entertainment. If you do see it, stick around after the end. The best part of the movie was the end credits, where they screened the film the kids had been making. If you can ignore the fact Abrams totally hijacked the idea from Son of Rambow, it’s really funny.