J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” really is like a child’s Super 8 film, with all the good and bad that that comparison suggests. It’s ambitious and unfocused, imaginative and contrived. It’s flawed, but it’s also really close to being a truly wonderful film. There were parts that I absolutely adored. And there were parts I borderline hated.
The film itself is almost as bifurcated as my reaction. Maybe that’s part of the problem. It begins, with incredible promise, as the story of a group of young teenagers let loose on their small Ohio town for summer vacation in 1979. They’re making a Super 8 movie about a cop investigating a series of zombie murders: Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the director. Martin (Gabriel Basso) is the lead actor. Cary (Ryan Lee) is the pyromaniac and pyrotechnics expert. And Joe (Joel Courtney), whose father Jack (Kyle Chandler) is a deputy sheriff in town, does the sound, makeup, and models. Joe’s mother died a few months earlier in a mill accident, leaving Jack an emotional wreck and leaving Joe with his friends, their movie, and not much else.
Charles, perhaps voicing the fears of Abrams himself, worries his movie might be too heavy on special effects and too light on characters you really care about, so he writes a part for the cop’s wife and casts Alice (Elle Fanning). Alice is pretty and a natural, untrained actor. Her entrance into this group previously populated only by boys shakes things up in the best way possible. The scenes between the kids as they work on their movie in cluttered bedrooms and noisy diners are full of charm and authenticity. This is one half of the film.
The other half begins when the group is out filming at the train station one night as a train comes hurtling down the tracks. “Production values!” Charles yells, and they all scramble into position. As they’re shooting, a truck drives into the path of the train and derails it in a massive special effects sequence. Suddenly the pressures and complications of adulthood — or maybe just the demands of large-scale mainstream filmmaking — have invaded the kids’ previously humdrum lives. Now they can’t just focus on their little film; they’ve got to also contend with a massive government conspiracy and an escaped passenger from the train whose size and strength suggests he’s not from Ohio. The metaphor’s right there for anyone who wants to see it: the director trying to make a movie about life as it’s lived who has to throw in some aliens too just to make it commercial.
“Super 8” was co-produced by Steven Spielberg, whose own movies about children, aliens, and the American suburbs inspired Abrams’ screenplay as much as the director’s own filmmaking projects as a youth. And “Super 8” is full of Spielberg homages in general, and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” homages in particular, right down to the particular style of the lens flares that frequently flash onscreen (by the way, lens flare in an underground cave in the middle of a blackout? That just doesn’t make any sense). But where Abrams has certainly aped the look, feel, and milieu of early Spielberg, he missed one crucial aspect. Particularly during that period of his career, Spielberg was the unparalleled master of meshing epic stories with minute character studies. “Jaws,” “Close Encounters, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.,” these movies are near-perfect blends of big-scale narrative and small-scale humanity. Abrams has the potential for all of that but he never quite reconciles his two halves — the kids and their movie, the alien on the loose — properly. He dives deep into the characters in the first act, then practically forgets about them as he crams in as many scary alien attacks as possible. As a result, when he suddenly returns to the characters in between the beats of his sci-fi spectacular finale, it feels forced instead of heartwarming. In some ways, Abrams’ last film, “Star Trek,” which blended action and character and heart more successfully, is a more Spielbergian film than “Super 8.”
I think I’d be less bothered by the alien scenes if I was more interested in the alien. Abrams loves to talk about his “mystery box” theory of moviemaking, and how the more you withhold something from the audience, the more they’re interested in seeing it. That approach certainly jives with Spielberg, who turned a crappy animatronic shark into a lurking, unseen menace and turned “Jaws” into a classic. Of course, Spielberg found a narrative-motivated reason to keep the shark off-screen — the humans are above the water in a boat and can’t see Jaws — while Abrams basically just sticks the camera in the most obstructed angle in any scene to cover his monster. When we finally do see the “Super 8” alien, he’s just not impressive enough to justify the lengths Abrams goes to hide him.
Like most Spielberg classics, “Super 8” preaches a moral of childhood innocence triumphing over adult cynicism. But the cynic in me can’t help but feel like a truly great film about kids and their dreams got buried here underneath a fairly formulaic monster movie. When Abrams occasionally gives the alien muckety-muck a rest, the kids are terrific, and Elle Fanning in particular delivers a very moving performance. The movie doesn’t quite go off the rails along with that mysterious train, but it’s pretty close.
Note: The best part of “Super 8” comes during the closing credits. Don’t leave the theater until you see it. And after you see it, tell us what you thought of it! Leave us some comments below or on Twitter and Facebook!