Review: Super 8

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Brian DePalma made Hitchcockian films, Woody Allen made Bergmanesque films, and now J.J. Abrams has made a Spiebergian (Spielbergesque?) film, Super 8. The difference is that Spielberg himself has his fingerprints all over it, as he is one of the producers.

If this film isn’t as good as Spielberg’s best, it’s a blast, and if I were 13 I would have loved it even more, as it speaks to the kind of kid I was then, just like the kids in this movie, who are into monster magazines and making models (the site of a jar of Testor’s model paint gave me a Proustian rush). It’s set in 1979, which was my era, and I very much enjoyed the world that Abrams creates, down to the soundtrack and that a sheriff thinks a Walk-Man is a slippery slope to bad teen behavior.

The film is a hybrid of a childhood adventure and a monster movie–it’s like Stand By Me with aliens. A group of kids, led by the rotund Charles (Riley Griffiths), are working on a super 8 film for a festival. His best friend is Joe (Joel Courtney), who has recently lost his mother in an industrial accident. His father, the deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler), is distant, and wants to send Joe to baseball camp for six weeks, because “it’s what we both need.”

Joe wants to stay and help Charles, and is delighted when he learns that his crush, Alice (Elle Fanning) is going to be in the movie. Like Joe, Alice is without a mother (a classic Disney tactic), and her father (Ron Eldard) is a drunk who’s in and out of trouble with the law. While out filming in the middle of the night at a train station, the kids witness a horrific train crash, when a pickup truck purposely drives into the oncoming train. Their camera records a key bit of information, and they end up trying to outwit the Air Force and their parents to figure out just what’s causing all the weird stuff going on in their town.

I won’t reveal too much more, but I will say there’s a monster involved, and in a classic Spielberg move, you don’t see much of him until the end (perhaps this all stems from the happy accident of Bruce the Shark’s mechanical problems in Jaws). The monster stuff isn’t nearly as interesting as the kids, and having the government be the bogeyman is a tired plot device.

But I loved the interaction between the kids, who are all good, particularly Courtney, Griffiths, and Fanning (who would be any 13-year-old boy’s crush). I don’t want to sound sexist, but this is really a boy’s film, from a male perspective, and Fanning’s character is a bit of a dream come true. It reminds me that Spielberg’s original title for E.T. was A Boy’s Life–this thing is dripping with the stuff that boys love, or at least did once upon a time.

The ending of the film does not exactly hold together. Like the film that Charles is making, some plot points get glided over. There’s a rather easy escape by a character from military custody, and when Joe and the creature meet face to face there’s some maudlin dialogue that seems straight out of a comic book. But this isn’t the kind of movie to spend too much time saying, “Wait a minute.” Instead it’s a movie about impressions, and drinking in the world of the film. I loved the look of the thing, especially the little Ohio town. I was kind of disappointed that they didn’t include a neighborhood movie theater with Alien on the marquee–it came out that summer.

Do stay through the credits, when Charles’ film is shown in its entirety, and has lots of laughs. Then stay and listen to the Knack sing “My Sharona,” and if you’re old enough, have a flashback.

My grade for Super 8: B+

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

11 responses »

  1. *****SPOILERS******
    One thing Spielberg always managed to do was make you believe what he was doing. He made you look at the screen and believe an alien and a little boy could become friends and help each other. He made you believe a spaceship could land at Devil’s Tower and he made you believe dinosaurs could actually come from a mosquito trapped in amber.
    None of this…and I mean none of it has that same wonder. The animal EATS humans. Why anyone is even using Spielberg in the same breath is beyond me. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but when even the laws of physics are thrown out the window for spectacle, how can we immerse ourselves in the world of the movie?
    The train crash: Absurd nonsense that goes on far too long. Oh, and he doctor is still alive. The creature: A direct knockoff of Cloverfield that eats humans and burrows underground. (*How the hell did the army not know where his underground lair was…where this monster hangs people to EAT them! WHAT, no one was looking for the SHERIFF?!)
    The metal clinging to the water tower? The metal rushing past their heads and lifting only select cars and select guns and only a few things metal? Nonsense.
    Telepathic connection? Starship Troopers. This was a Paul Verhoeven movie with none of his trademark subversive wit. This was just nonsense, with no wink-wink, nudge-nudge Verhoeven insider jokes.
    Give me either the great growing up story in the vein of Stand By Me or give me a monster movie done by any of your more capable stable of directors….please.

  2. I can’t argue with any of your points about the plot. I was able to overlook them (yes, the doctor surely would have been in many little pieces after the train crash) because I was so into the characters.

    As for mentioning Spielberg in the same breath, it’s hard not to mention him because he’s one of the producers and it’s clear that his style influenced Abrams, whether for good or bad.

    And absurd nonsense is redundant.

  3. Super 8 – a terrific example of how you can’t fake greatness. You can take down the recipe and approximate the ingredients, but you can’t make something great unless you really have the goods. J.J. Abrams does not have the goods – not this time around. He’s smart, that’s for sure. He’s an expert forger (that everybody seems to be okay with him ripping Spielberg off – even Spielberg himself – kind of shocks me). And he comes up with some genuinely good moments – usually involving the kids – three of the young actors are really terrific. From time to time the film can lull you into a sense that you’re watching something great in one scene, then in the next scene make it ABUNDANTLY clear that you aren’t. At its worst it just feels false. It lacks genuineness. One of Abrams’ greatest failings is that he can’t nail the big moments. There are two big, dramatic, emotional, heavily symbolic moments in here that are pretty bad. Well, one is bad – the other makes you want to grab the nearest sharp object and stab yourself in the eye.

    In the end, most of the audience I watched the film with seemed to have bought it, so maybe the film will do well in the long run. I can’t see it ending up as some sort of classic, though.

    As far as the monster goes – it’s a McGuffin for most of the movie. I’m sure just about everyone here knows what that is, but for anyone who doesn’t know – it’s something that pushes the characters into action, but the specifics don’t really matter. The microfilm in North by Northwest is a good example. Doesn’t matter what was on it – just that people wanted it. 2/3 of this movie go by without the specifics of the monster mattering. The film is about a boy and a girl working through a tragedy as they make a film with their friends – then it jumps into monster movie mode for the final third. The shift makes sense as these were two different movie ideas Abrams had that he smashed together. I think most people will be let down by the monster itself. It looks like shit. It’s like people can’t make cool monsters anymore.

    A gorgeous, very well-made B-

  4. One thing Spielberg always managed to do was make you believe what he was doing. He made you look at the screen and believe an alien and a little boy could become friends and help each other. He made you believe a spaceship could land at Devil’s Tower and he made you believe dinosaurs could actually come from a mosquito trapped in amber.
    None of this…and I mean none of it has that same wonder.

    a terrific example of how you can’t fake greatness. You can take down the recipe and approximate the ingredients, but you can’t make something great unless you really have the goods. J.J. Abrams does not have the goods

    QFT. I don’t really have much to add.

  5. You know what’s funny? Before posting that, I Googled it myself, just to make sure that it was a top entry in case anyone (ahem) needed to look it up. IYKWIMAITYD.

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