A couple of weekends ago, Mock’ was throwing a fillies only shindig in honor of the Belmont Stakes, so I picked my horse, placed my bet, and then ABD and I got out of there and headed for the theater to check out Super 8. The movie earned a resounding “meh,” from us both. There is much of the nostalgia piece about this movie, for those long ago days when Spielberg really knew how to make a movie. Echoes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. abound, although given a somewhat different, darker twist by director J.J. Abrams. It’s a period piece, and necessarily so as some pretty significant plot points hang on having to wait three days for 8mm film to be developed, and on the lack of cell phones and the internet.
In a nutshell, a group of young teens and ‘tweens have been bit by the moviemaking bug, made possible by Super 8 cameras and a proliferation of amateur movie-making and Fangoria-esque monster-makeup magazines. The hero of the piece is the techie, Joe Lamb, the talented model builder turned sound-man and makeup artist for the kids’ monster movie, played by Joel Courtney who falls hard and innocently for the 14 year old ingénue Alice Dainard, played by Elle Fanning. Keep an eye out for these two actors. In fact, keep an eye out for all 6 of the young actors who form the core of this film. They bring a level of talent and heart to the screen that I haven’t seen in far too long. Fanning, in a lovely movie-within-the-movie scene where she is rehearsing an emotional goodbye to her husband in the kids’ film, manages in a few lines to remind us how magical the art of acting can be, and how powerfully we can be moved by it. I really just can’t heap enough praise on this group of young actors. They make the movie worth it.
Unfortunately, the talent is better than their vehicle. The plot proceeds along the expected lines. Witnessing a horrific train accident, the kids are the first to know that something fishy’s going on in this small Ohio town, and knowing more than the adults who refuse to listen to them, they set out to investigate and eventually our boy-hero saves our girl-heroine and the alien gets to go home. Pretty much cookie cutter filmmaking here, Readers Mine. Still the first hour to hour and fifteen minutes of the movie are quite good. J.J. Abrams is actually very good at portraying human interpersonal relationships, often very complex ones, and in creating three dimensional characters, and when he sticks to that, as he does with the kids in the first half of the film, he's really good. However, he didn't take the time to equally develop the adults in the story or their relationships with their kids, and this winds up really hurting the film. Where Abrams consistently falls short, though, is when he attempts to bring the fantastic, whether aliens or islands.
In the last half of the film it begins to feel like you’re watching two different movies that never quite manage to get together as the kids’ storyline and escaped alien storyline careen into overdrive and at best just kind of glance off one another. I literally found myself thinking in classic MST3K fashion, “meanwhile, in another movie…” This is exacerbated by Abrams' stock trick of delaying the reveal of the monster through a series of fast, blurred, and partial glimpses of the beast, or just sound effects followed by shots of after the fact devastation. It doesn’t work. Not in LOST, not in Cloverfield, and not in Super 8. The reveal, as usual, is a letdown. It just can’t compete with the monster you’ve built in your head, and doesn’t. This kind of tease-and-reveal is incredibly hard, and even artists who are really good at it, like H. P. Lovecraft was, have a hard time pulling it off. Abrams isn’t good at it. Rounding out the stock-plot is the evil military colonel, the misunderstood alien, and parents learning the lesson of how wonderful their kids really are. All great stock-plots. Stock-plots that made Spielberg! Abrams, however, is no Spielberg, and in his hands the final half of the film winds up clunky and forced. (And let’s face it; once the monster has started chowing down on humans, I’m with the bad colonel. Hell, I’m with Ripley: nuke the town from orbit: it’s the only way to be sure. Letting the thing escape just doesn’t seem like a good idea, you know? Round up the kids and send in the SRBMs.)
So, over all, Super 8 gets a “B-,” mostly due to the efforts of the group of young actors at its center, and for the first half of the film. Be sure and stick around for the credits to see the 8mm movie the kids were actually making during the film, it’s one of the best parts. Super 8 is well worth putting in your Netflix cue or hitting for a $5 matinee, but go to the Dollar Store before hand and smuggle in your candy. No need to give the theater too much money for this one.