Going into a Steven Spielberg film, we expect a number of distinctive thematic elements: Ordinary characters in extraordinary situations; strained parent/child relationships, especially between fathers and sons; a childlike inquisitiveness at the unexplainable; friendship, the loss of innocence, and coming of age; overt sentimentalism; and in some cases, excitement/awe/terror at the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Super 8, produced by Spielberg, is in many ways just as autobiographical as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — perhaps even more so, considering the film’s Ohio location (Spielberg’s home state) and a crucial subplot involving budding teenage filmmakers, who are driven to make their movie even as their town descends into chaos.
While clearly Spielberg-esque, Super 8 has been written and directed by J.J. Abrams. This would be fine were it not for his previous two films, the unnecessary Mission: Impossible III and the highly disappointing Star Trek reboot, which reduced Gene Roddenberry’s ideals of science and society into a loud and visually assaultive summer popcorn flick. (To his credit, he also produced Cloverfield, quite possibly one of the greatest monster movies ever made.) Although Super 8 is his best film to date, and while it certainly is recommendable for sheer entertainment, it does not get away unscathed; it reveals a clear disconnect between the director’s propensity for action and comedy and the producer’s dreamy-eyed sense of wonder. It’s an awkward mix to say the least.
The film takes place in the transition from 1979 to 1980 and is set in a typical middle-American small town, where kids ride on bikes past mom-and-pop convenience stores. It begins with a funeral, specifically for the mother of a young movie fan named Joe (Joel Courtney). He’s one of those kids whose messy room is adorned with horror movie posters and model kits of train sets and movie monsters like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He’s now left with his father, a local deputy named Jackson (Kyle Chandler), who hasn’t found a constructive way to cope with his loss and clearly doesn’t understand his son. As the months pass, Joe and his friends, a motley crew of adolescent caricatures, focus their attention on filming a Super 8 zombie movie, which they hope to enter into a local film competition.
One night, they sneak out after dark to film a scene at a train station. A freight train speeds into view, which the director feels would add considerable production value. Things take a dark turn when a truck drives onto the tracks, causing the train to derail and crash in spectacular fashion; cars fly through the air, debris bounces across the fields, and oh, the explosions. The kids, scraped but unharmed, find bizarre metal cubes, which litter the accident scene. They also see the door on one of the cars fly open and hear as something — something — escapes into the night. They then have a frightening encounter with the driver of the truck: Their science teacher, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), who has miraculously survived the crash. The police arrive, and the kids flee … but not before picking up their camera, which continued filming even after getting knocked over.
That’s when strange things start happening around town. Lights flicker, indicating a problem with the power supply. Electronic household objects are disappearing, as are car engines, radios, and even people. Dogs run off, only to be found in different cities. And something monstrous is destroying buildings and vehicles, all the while digging massive underground tunnels. It isn’t long before army tanks lumber down Main Street while soldiers set up camp. Their mission is, of course, classified. That doesn’t stop Jackson from trying to get to the bottom of things. All the while, as Joe and his friend struggle to get their movie finished, they do a little investigating of their own. What did they inadvertently capture on film? And how does it connect to Dr. Woodward?
The ads for Super 8 have suggested a science fiction thriller, something along the lines of Independence Day. In reality, it’s a kid’s adventure, owing more to the style of another Spielberg production, The Goonies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. The problem is that there isn’t much “kid” in this movie; there’s no real sense of wonder or imagination, least of all in the secret of the escaped creature (my lips are sealed). I also took issue with the film’s sense of humor, which pops up in the most unlikely and unwanted of places. Is it just me, or does following a bloody and traumatizing creature attack scene with a joke about being too stoned to drive seem monumentally out of place?
There are, however, some tender moments between Joe and a teenage girl named Alice (Elle Fanning); they become friends, although Jackson is adamantly against this. I leave it to you discover why. I also enjoyed sitting through the end credits, for Abrams allows us to see the kids’ finished film. Let’s just say that all filmmakers have to start somewhere. Super 8 has many moments of great excitement and fun, and it certainly doesn’t go wrong in the visual effects department. It is, in short, a serviceable movie. It’s apparent to me, however, that the producer is making one movie while the director is making another. They do find some middle ground along the way, which is good. But considering the story we’re being told, I guess I was hoping for a little more.