J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is one of the most anticipated and mystery-enshrouded films of the summer. The hype for this sci-fi family pic has been off the charts, and Abrams and co. have been tight-lipped and secretive about this quaint coming-of-age tale with a sci-fi twist. But the shroud is about to be lifted as Super 8 crashes into theaters on June 10.
Despite 112 minutes of action-packed blockbustery fun, Super 8 will still leave you with some questions. In typical Abrams style, the film keeps to the “tell little, reveal less” philosophy. While this does increase the suspense and keep the creature effects more intense, it also leads to a hurried and awkward ending that doesn’t quite fit. The elements that really work are the nostalgic period accents and the warm, authentic interactions between main character Joe and his group of buddies as they work on their zombie film (shot on a Kodak Super 8 camera, of course), and find out how big the world really is.
Set in a small town in Ohio during the summer of 1979, young Joe and his friends have taken on the ultimate challenge of creating their own zombie movie with an eye on winning an upcoming film competition. With the recent death of his mother, and a distant father who doesn’t know quite how to handle things, Joe is left to himself to deal with stuff.
Best bud Charles is directing the film with his dad’s camera, and has put the whole gang to work in a somewhat tyrannical manner. With Joe roped in as make-up artist, Cary on explosives, and Preston and Martin co-starring, all the film needs is a leading lady. When Charles asks enigmatic classmate Alice to join the cast, things begin to change for the tight-knit group of friends.
Alice, besides being an astounding actress, is a bit of a wild card. She steals her drunken father’s car from time to time and drives the gang around (naturally without a license). Joe and Alice form a quiet connection, which is violently forbidden by both of their fathers for some reason. When Alice finally tells Joe why their fathers hate each other, it only makes their bond stronger.
One night, while filming a farewell scene at the old train stop, the gang witness a white pick-up truck racing down the tracks at an oncoming train. The resulting collision derails the train, and as fiery explosions catapult metal in all directions Joe and his friends run for their lives.
When Joe comes to, he discovers he’s been thrown down in a field of flaming debris and giant metal train cars. There’s no trace of his friends, and as he stands there alone he sees something strange in one of the cars. As if something incredibly strong were beating at the walls, the metal container bursts open. Joe waits a long moment, but as nothing else happens he goes in search of his friends.
As the rest of the young’ens climb out from among the smoldering debris dirty-faced and awe-struck, Joe notices strange white “Rubick’s cube” type things everywhere spilling out of broken boxes. Not only that, but the driver of the white pick-up truck is miraculously still alive and able to speak. The kids recognize him as their old school teacher Dr. Woodward, and among his ramblings he warns them not to tell anyone of what they saw, or they’ll be in danger.
Shaken up, the boys (and Alice) decide to keep everything that happened a secret. But the next day the military moves in, under the ruthless leadership of Nelec, and strange things start happening around the town. First the dogs go missing, then the power outages start. Under the darkness of night things start to disappear, like electronics and car engines. And then the people. It is here that the mystery begins.
With Steven Spielberg‘s influence as producer and sounding board, Super 8 naturally invites comparisons to seminal ‘80s film E.T., the family-friendly sci-fi about a so-ugly-it’s-cute-again alien and the little boy who tries to send it home. Unfortunately, Super 8 is not E.T.. It has the group of young boys, the emotional elements, the alien-trying-to-get-home shtick, and some of the humor, but the cohesiveness and heart is missing.
Abrams’ film simply doesn’t meld the touching coming-of-age story with the stalking-alien-horror story fluidly enough. As if the alien was kind of thrown into Joe’s story, and then in the end they tried to explain why it was there. The human-alien interactions are, for the most part, terror-inducing and violent. The ending suddenly expects the audience to put all that aside. The result? A strange, forced conclusion that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Abrams does bring a lot of fun to his film. The interaction between the group of boys is reminiscent of The Goonies, both in era-related jokes and the constant teasing and/or bickering. This dynamic felt very authentic and delivered most of the laughs. I soon lost count of the genre-film clichés, which pleased in a self-referential way. Joe’s loss and emotional growth sometimes felt heavy-handed (especially in the last scene), but Abrams dealt deftly with Joe’s budding romance with the fiercely deep Alice.
Those familiar with Abrams’ past work on films like Cloverfield and TV series Lost will not be surprised at how long he draws out the creature reveal. He loves mysteries, and as a filmmaker he understands that the imagination is much more powerful that any creature effect he could produce.
He also built some great tension and atmosphere, in every way increased by the way he handled the monster, revealing it only bit by bit, tiny glimpses here and there and usually partially obstructed. When the creature is completely revealed, though, there’s some disappointment after that prolonged build-up. He waits too long to start doling out information. Many aspects of the alien’s motivation and staging of events doesn’t make any sense. There are a few abrupt cut-aways to, obviously made in an attempt to maintain mystery. Some fans of Lost may appreciate this intense cinematic secrecy, but beyond using it for atmosphere and creature effect, I found it became tedious.
Abrams is no slouch when it comes to Blockbuster action movies (Star Trek, Mission Impossible III). When the action gets going, it’s well-paced and exciting. Plenty of impressive explosions and firepower and general monster destruction. Abrams’ action dynamics are some of the best things about his films. He composes violent action like a symphony, and it’s a joy to watch all the elements combine. The soundtrack is appropriately sweeping and epic, voluminous and inspiring when necessary, or soft and sweet for the more emotional scenes.
As for the alien effects, *may contain spoilers*, I was pleased enough. Like I said, Abrams plays coy with the alien. The CGI creature, when finally seen, has an interesting design. Insectoid for the most part, but with an interesting ambidextrousness. The artistic design team decided to give the grotesquely shaped behemoth huge, lidded eyes, that open for the first time at the very end while it is linking telepathically with Joe. Here, finally, is a moment where audiences might feel sympathy for the alien, but it is over too quickly and then the movie ends without ever really developing that connection in a believable way.
The film spends too long in building its great atmosphere of panic and mystery to dispel it all in a soft, quick moment of intergalactic psychic communing. Abrams wants us to swallow some pretty big story jumps in the last ten minutes of the film. The menacing alien, busy grabbing people at night and taking them down to its lair, can communicate telepathically through touch. We are supposed to believe the rampaging villain of the show is just a poor, hungry, misunderstood alien that wants to go home (after terrorizing the small town). Not to mention the interaction between Joe and the alien felt forced and illogical because there was no explanation for it. *spoilers end here*
There were no big Hollywood names starring in Super 8, which I think worked in the film‘s favor. With no iconic actors to distract, the lesser-known actors gave the film a great authenticity. Some of the actors playing the boys were first-timers, including newbie Joel Courtney who played Joe. Courtney did a fantastic job as the earnest young’en with hidden strength. His interactions with the “gang” seemed completely natural and easy, and ultimately likeable.
I was also Impressed with Elle Fanning as Alice. She was a scene-stealer. Fanning has a great presence for someone her age, and a beyond-her-years emotional resonance. She‘ll soon be giving sister Dakota some major competition. Co-stars Zach Mills, Riley Griffiths and Gabriel Basso also delivered fun, likeable pre-pubescents. Ryan Lee played the brilliantly mouthy fireworks expert of the group, Cary, and in my opinion pulled the most laughs.
Super 8, despite some flaws in the story, presents an accessible family sci-fi with plenty of action and humor. The relationship dynamics within the group of boys was authentic and fun, and there was a hefty element of nostalgia to recommend the film. A great summer family film, Super 8 is worth a watch. For those cinephiles harder to please, don’t go in expecting another E.T. and you won‘t be too disappointed. Oh, and don’t jump up and leave as soon as the credits roll or you’ll miss some fun footage.