Super 8 is the rarest thing in the world nowadays, a movie that wants to surprise you. It comes to theaters in unusual secrecy, amid a marketing compaign emphasizing suspense and anticipation over giving everything away. Somehow or other I got to the theater knowing practically nothing about the film except for the names of writer-director J. J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg. That’s next to impossible with most movies nowadays.
If Hollywood has learned anything in the last few decades, it’s that the last thing audiences want is anything unexpected. If audiences loved The Hangover once, they’ll love it even more the second time around, beat for beat, in the sequel. If they loved Jack Sparrow or Kung Fu Panda once, why not six times? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—that’s Hollywood’s credo.
If you must make a movie that’s not a sequel, a remake or an adaptation of a comic book or TV show, there’s still no reason why it can’t be exactly like a dozen other films out there. Above all, the more the trailers and advertisements give away, the better audiences like it. Nothing matters more than packing in as much of your potential audience on opening weekend.
Gone are the days when a movie like E.T. could open to a mere $11 million, build on word of mouth, and go on to earn more than $350 million in North America. Obviously, Abrams remembers those days. In a way, Super 8 is as derivative and familiar as anything in theaters today, only the movies it’s copying are all over a quarter of a century old: Spielbergian fare like The Goonies, E.T., Gremlins and Close Encounters, with echoes of earlier and later films. Spielberg’s cinematic DNA is all over the film, from the 1970s suburban setting to the young heroes with troubled home lives, though what Spielberg himself may have contributed as producer and what is Abrams imitating the master is impossible to say.
Alas, one of the less attractive features of those old Spielbergian films, particularly The Goonies, is avidly echoed and even exaggerated here: the gratuitous profanity and crass language. Jesus’ name is thrown around a lot, and while there’s nothing here quite as coarse as Elliot’s infamous obscenity there’s a lot of potty language. Oh, and the graphic vomiting. I hadn’t missed that, either.
There are at least two ways in which Super 8 is very clearly an Abrams film. One is its coyness about its premise. Abrams loves secrets. Where Spielberg’s movies tell you what they’re about right from the start, Super 8 takes its time. Jaws begins underwater and kills off the shark’s first victim in the opening scene. E.T. opens with aliens running around in the forests of northern California, hiding from government agents. By contrast, nothing in the first act of Super 8 tells you what kind of movie you’re watching, except that it generally feels a lot like an early Spielberg film.
The other Abrams hallmark, alas, is a strong opening followed by mounting plot problems and a disappointing conclusion. I never watched “Lost,” but the frustration of Losties is a testament both to Abrams’ talent and his limitations. If “Lost” were no good, it wouldn’t matter that it was a mess. Even when Abrams is firing on all cylinders, as he is in Star Trek, it’s not hard to pull his work to pieces once you start thinking about it.
Super 8 works so well for an hour or so that it’s disappointing to watch it unravel in the third act and then fall apart completely at the climax. In retrospect, it’s a mess.
The title harkens back to a time when home movies were shot on 8 mm film, and young movie enthusiasts like Abrams and Spielberg borrowed their dad’s camera to experiment with making their own movies. In my case it was my grandfather’s camera; my sole directorial effort was an unfinished science-fiction film called Cyborg. It had a couple of neat effects, although there’s a reason I became a critic and not a director.
The young heroes of Super 8 are making a zombie movie. The mastermind is a heavyset boy named Charles (Riley Griffiths), but Abrams’ protagonist is a soulful kid named Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney), whose mother has just died in an industrial accident. Joe and his father (Kyle Chandler), a small-town deputy sheriff, aren’t close, and the tragedy seems to be driving them further apart rather than drawing them together.
Crucial to the film, and to the film within the film, is Alice (Elle Fanning), a natural leading lady who’s also old enough to drive, if not quite legally. Alice brings a level of feeling to Charles’s zombie movie out of all proportion to the rest of the production. Watching her utter her lines, her male colleagues are mesmerized. Actually, they’re pretty mesmerized by her even when she’s just standing around. Joe is the makeup guy, which means he has the thrilling privilege of touching Alice’s face.
The interactions among the kids, and the innocent attraction between Joe and Alice, is touchingly well done. Alas, domestic relationships—the heart of the Spielbergian films Abrams is copying—aren’t nearly as well handled. The death of Joe’s mother, his awkward relationship with his cop father, Alice’s even more dysfunctional relationship with her boozer father, the bad feeling between the two dads, revolving around the death of Joe’s mother: in a real Spielberg film, this is where the heart and soul of the movie would be. Here, it’s all perfunctory, without much more emotional weight than a scene from Charles’s zombie movie.
Abrams is a gifted storyteller, and he knows when to use suggestion and understatement, and when to clobber the audience. A detail as small as a sputtering car engine not only tells us something about a character’s socioeconomic status, but helps us put the pieces together as Abrams lays them out. He builds suspense from clues as quiet as missing dog notices on a bulletin board.
But Abrams overplays his hand. He piles up so many hints, and builds such suspense, that disappointment begins to feel inevitable. The tonal swings from the humorous character moments to the scary thriller stuff strain toward a triumphant cathartic finale that Abrams can’t deliver. Instead of anything even approximately satisfying, he offers nonsensical frenetic action, followed by a jaw-droppingly lame climax. (Spoiler warning.)
The whole third act is off-putting. As the town descends into a bona fide war zone, the boys dodge explosions and crashing rubble on a rescue mission that makes no sense, looking for someone they have every reason to believe is dead and no particular reason to think they can locate in any case. People are being killed—they know this; they’ve seen it. It’s just stupid to think that this person is alive and waiting to be found and rescued.
What finally happens when they come face to face with the source of all the nastiness, and how the whole crisis is abruptly resolved, is the icing of lameness on the stupid cake. It’s like Abrams wanted to make Jaws (or Jurassic Park) and E.T. at the same time. Scary predator or cute goblin: choose one.
Most inexcusable of all is the shallow treatment of the death of Joe’s mother, and his eventual rapprochement with his father. Joe’s mother is reduced in the film to a necklace with a locket that Joe carries everywhere, fingering it as if it were a rosary. At one point a soldier confiscates the necklace, and Joe later retrieves it from the soldier’s dead body (with none of the difficulty you’d expect from a boy groping a still-warm dead body).
Then, in the end, a gratuitous plot contrivance suggests that it’s time for Joe to give up the locket, to move on with his life. His mother has been dead for less than half a year. If my mother had died around the time I was filming Cyborg, I would want to kick this movie in the shins.
Content advisory: Intense action, violence and menace; some gross-out images including onscreen vomiting; recurring profanity, crass language and one obscenity; depictions of drug and alcohol abuse.