Review: Super 8

Created by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg. That phrase says a lot. As more and more clues were revealed as to Abrams second secret film project, the mere presence of these two respected names began to connect dots in the minds of film fans. The first teaser — made before the film even began casting — implied aliens. No surprise there with Abrams’ viral marketing hit “Cloverfield” and Spielberg’s classic, “E.T.” Yet the connection between those two films only grew as more information came out about “Super 8.” A Super Bowl TV spot revealed child main characters in a late ’70s setting, only a few years off from the actual release of “E.T.,” and the presence of a mysterious monster evoked “Cloverfield.” Does “Super 8” burst with so much originality as to end those comparisons? No, but Abrams continues to prove he knows how to entertain an audience.

To appropriately continue the juxtaposition, “Super 8” ultimately works as a scarier “E.T.” for adults. To drop another Spielberg film into the mix, the monster attacks feel a lot like “Jurassic Park” although the monster itself possesses the same mystique as that of “Cloverfield.” Yet alien/monster film is just one piece of the movie’s identity. In all other senses, “Super 8” serves as a period piece, a look back at what it was like to be a kid growing up in the Midwest in 1979. The creature feature part helps bring life to the imagination of the main characters and turn that era into a tall tale setting of sorts.

For Abrams, who would have been 13 in the summer of ’79, this project is clearly personal. You cannot divorce the filmmaker from the film in this instance. He was undoubtedly one of the kids out there making movies on his Super 8 camera and the plot of this movie enacts a fantasy of his to some extent; what it would be like to actually capture footage of the events he once so desperately tried to create in his own home-spun features.

The story follows Joe (Joel Courtney), who loses his mother in a construction accident a few months before the events of the film. He’s a dedicated friend and make up artist to young filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths), who’s making a movie on his Super 8 to enter into some Ohio film festival competition. Charles wants to film at a train station at midnight and he convinces his usual cast and crew of friends to indulge him, as well as Alice (Elle Fanning), who Joe becomes smitten with even before she arrives. While filming, a freight train comes by and suddenly a truck zooms onto the tracks and derails it. After narrowly escaping certain death, the truck driver warns them not to say a word of what happened, which gets tougher and tougher in the coming days as people, pets and electronic appliances disappear.

“Super 8” could’ve been a drama about kids with big imaginations making movies to avoid dealing with the harsh realities of their family lives — it might have even been better that way — but the big alien in the room quickly changes that. At times, the switch between coming- of-age story and sci-fi horror feels jarring, but both elements exhibit excellent craftsmanship independent of one another. Abrams simply doesn’t sew them up into the most seamless of quilts.

But maybe he doesn’t need to. “Super 8” has a surprising amount of humor, a bit of effective suspense, cool action sequences (if you can brush aside the preposterousness of the inciting train derailment), realistic family drama and a few touching moments as well. Those are all winning ingredients, obviously, and “Super 8” is a worthwhile watch because of them, but a large through-line seems to be missing. Abrams’ concept always held more weight than his story, and though the integration entertains completely, the transformation from concept to film was not as heavily scrutinized as it might in a project that’s not its filmmaker’s brain child.

There’s a slight air of disappointment, if for no other reason than because of the mammoth secret that Abrams kept from us and the reveal not being mind-numbing. Although “Super 8” remained a mystery up until its release, the plot itself has a much harder time remaining mysterious throughout the film. Once the kids uncover information of the monster’s origin, the film loses all steam from a “figure it out” perspective and “Super 8” enters the realm of predictability, which you don’t expect when you go see a film kept so tightly under lock and key.

Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment logo and Abrams’ Bad Robot stamp certainly suggest greatness, but better to realize that those talents imply a certain reliability more so than than ground-breaking cinema. Spielberg broke his ground; now he’s producing “Transformers” and bad “Indiana Jones” sequels. Abrams has always been more of a television pioneer and did this once before with “Cloverfield.” As such, “Super 8” is a film you can depend on for entertainment, one that’s a product of successful films of the past, not a game changer that will move us into a new era of “top secret” filmmaking.

3.5/5 Stars

Super 8
Written and Directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Kyle Chandler

1 Comment

  1. Dan O. says:

    Abrams remembers the simple rule that a majority of his contemporaries have forgotten: action and mayhem have meaning only when an audience cares about the people trapped within the maelstrom. And I cared for all of these characters, even that drunk dad that gets arrested in the beginning. Nice Review! Check out mine when you get a chance!

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