There was a moment, while watching Super 8, when I realized the film didn’t quite know what to do with itself. This is a schizophrenic movie – it wants to be a coming-of-age flick, until it decides it wants to be an alien invasion spectacular, until it decides it wants to invoke the rampaging monster action of Cloverfield.
J.J. Abrams’ past work has been real hit-or-miss, in my estimation. Super 8 is a better flick than most of his efforts, falling just under the excellent Star Trek reboot, but above basically everything else I’ve seen of his.
And indeed, this is vintage Abrams – another science fiction story with everymen foreground characters (once again, youthful), caught unawares by extraordinary events. It’s the people standing near-field of the camera that you’ll want to pay attention to; they make this film special. Executive Producer Steven Spielberg’s innate understanding of children and family syncs wonderfully with stellar performances by the entire cast, especially Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard, and Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb.
The film opens with an elegant, poignant shot of a factory’s “X days since an Accident” sign rolling over to “0”. We first see our protagonist, Joe, sitting in a swing outside a funeral reception, his feet draped in snow. Joe has lost his mother. His father, Deputy Sheriff Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), is not beside his son at that moment, hinting at a heartbreaking distance the family attempts to reconcile over the course of the movie.
The duo is still mired in the effects of loss as we fast-forward to school letting out for summer. Luckily, Joe has companionship in the form of his horror-buff, budding filmmaker friends, led by one exuberant and eternally-stressed Charles (a wonderful Riley Griffiths), whom in particular is imbued with all the energy and melodrama of a kid that’s found an ideal profession early in life. Charles tells Joe that they’ve secured an actress for their next project, and they all go to the local train station with her to shoot a very important scene.
This kicks off the first strands of puppy love between Joe and Alice, and several moments of what had to be recollective content from the Executive Producer. Spielberg got his start as a kid filming backyard flicks, so it’s fun seeing a faux memoir of his roots in the guise of these characters.
Soon, the group’s project is violently interrupted by the arrival of a seemingly-suicidal motorist ramming a passing trail, derailing it in the film’s best special-effects sequence. Strange cargo spills out, and stranger events follow. Investigating the crash, the kids find a local teacher, who survives long enough to hand over a plot coupon. Then the Air Force arrives, and the government starts its transformation of the rural city into the site of a cover-up. The kids are forced into action.
You’ll note my summary stops here, and that’s not accidental. If stuck with just the science fiction in this tale, the derivative refuse would have merited barely a passing grade as a creature feature, winding up with a 2-star review.
Every work of the fantastic requires a few concessions from the audience, which I’m happy to give, but Super 8 is outright sloppy about establishing eerie plot devices, then discarding its own rules. Electrical activity that should fry alternators doesn’t seem to affect military drivetrains–even stuff that wouldn’t be hardened against EMI, like Jeeps. People can be suspended upside down for hours, sometimes days, apparently sedated, then be awoken with a simple slap, instantly becoming capable of jogging. The Air Force appears within minutes of a violent train crash, but apparently hoofed it to the site, as they’re unable to pursue Joe and the gang. The uniforms lock down an entire town, but couldn’t stop one of their own from storing top-secret files in a school cabinet (are these guys applying for Emperor Tod’s army?).
What saves this film from a two-star demerit are outstanding, likeable characters, which is where Abrams and Spielberg nail one right over the cheap seats. Any of us would gladly put up with the 70’s to live in this town. Every character feels vibrant and real, and each gets their own chance to shine. It’s the kind of thing that made Jurassic Park and Independence Day so much fun to watch, technical arguments notwithstanding. This film ranks right up there with its spiritual ancestor, E.T., with the homage it pays to childhood and first love, and it isn’t too far off-base for me to place a few of these scenes as cinematic equals to Jaws‘ brighter moments.
Spielberg is a legend because his films are less about the setting and more about the characters. One gets the sense his young counterpart, Abrams, is getting passed that torch with this feature. If Abrams thinks he can go light on the science fiction and produce a quality work on the basis of great characters…he’s right. And if that assumption gets us more flicks with Super 8‘s charm, I’m on board with that.