With Super 8, the latest from J.J. Abrams, it’s flat out impossible to talk about the film without mentioning Steven Spielberg’s greatest hits. For one, Spielberg is executive producer of the film, plus the whole enterprise is a love letter, of sorts, to the movies that defined Abrams’ (as well as our own) youth. I have no qualms with this conceit. Call it nostalgia, homage, pastiche, or rip-off, I don’t care, so long as the movie works. Fortunately, a lot of it does . . . but not all of it.
A lot of time was spent trying not to spoil any of Super 8’s surprises, and although the film has opened and the cat’s out of the bag, I will do my best to avoid divulging too much here. There aren’t any Keyser Soze-level reveals, so the secrecy is rather futile, but still, I’ll try.
So, the short version: it’s 1979 in small-town Ohio, a group of middle school friends are making an amateur zombie movie (itself an homage), when they witness the train crash to end all train crashes. Something on the train escapes, chaos ensues. The film obviously values its influences, so I’ll use them as shorthand to avoid specifics: the Goonies find themselves in the middle of a Jurassic Park/Jaws disaster.
And it’s a lot of fun, at first. The train crash is a wonder of twisting metal, fiery explosions and screeching sound effects. The child actors are superb, across the board. I’d say Elle Fanning is the standout, by virtue of having more to do, but they are all excellent young talents. Anytime they are all on-screen together Super 8 greatly benefits. Their dynamic is not only funny and natural, but grounds the action and thrills of the second act in real emotion and conflict. This balance, a few quibbles aside (train crash survivors, unmotivated lens flare), comes pretty close to Spielberg of yore. And let it be known that I am a big fan of Spielberg. I enjoy both his directing (Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.) and producing (Gremlins, *batteries not included).
Then the problems begin to arise. Some have already bitched at length about every single misstep, and rather well, I must say. I will stick with avoiding details, but I must single out my two major points of contention, both from the final act. The most egregious is that the kids, one of the movie’s saving graces, are sidelined. At one point I even leaned over and asked Adam where one of them had gone, then another goes M.I.A., then two more stay behind. What was once foreground is unceremoniously shoved into the background so the action and spectacle can take over, to the detriment of the film.
Which brings us to major point of contention number two, in which the film turns into a strange hybrid of Cloverfield and E.T., with disastrous results. Now, I really like Cloverfield and who doesn’t like E.T., but Super 8 was heading into an altogether different direction before it decided to ape these two pictures. The sudden change feels forced, and frankly, the emotional payoff doesn’t work because of it. I don’t mind sentiment with my summer popcorn fare, but the finale feels so disconnected from the rest of Super 8. The supreme example of this disconnect is right there in the eventually meaningless title. The plot point regarding the kids recording the train crash on super-8 film and the Air Force supposedly searching for witnesses has absolutely no bearing on the outcome of the movie.
So, what you have is a film brimming with tons of promise that falls apart by the time the credits roll. Just about every negative thing you’ve heard or read about the movie is true, but the kids, the production value, and the “I can’t believe it’s not Spielberg” moments make it worth your while.