Oh man, where do I begin with this?
While I don’t think I’m a “fan” of J.J. Abrams, I can say that between Alias, Lost (though Damon Lindelof was behind that more than J.J.), and both Stars (Trek and Wars), I’ve seen enough of his work to level some sort of educated opinion. Super 8 is a unique film of his in that it’s the only one he’s directed (so far) that is not part of an existing franchise and therefore is a wholly original film.
Look, it’s actually a fun movie to watch. The premise is that in 1979, a group of friends, while filming their own zombie movie for entry into a film festival, witness a horrific train crash. Moreover, the train is a military one that is carrying some sort of mysterious cargo and this results in the military sweeping into the town in order to contain and control whatever it is they lost in the crash. Among the subplots are a love story between two of the kids–Joe (Joel Courtney) and Alice (Elle Fanning) as well as a strained relationship between Joe and his police officer father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) because just prior to the events of the movie, Joe’s mom was killed in an accident at the chemical plant where she worked.
That’s as spoiler-free as I can get with the plot summary, and if it sounds like the plot to Stranger Things or a Spielberg movie, you’d be right. This was 2011, so the Netflix show wouldn’t come along for a number of years (and I wonder if the Duffer Brothers watched this while Stranger Things was in development); however, the Spielberg comparison is on the money and not just because he was one of the producers. Abrams would tell you that he is doing an homage to Spielberg’s alien movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., but this feels more like a cover version than an homage.
And that’s both a compliment and a knock, because it’s a decent cover, but in the way that while I enjoy The Ataris’ version of “The Boys of Summer”, I’ll always go back to Don Henley’s original. Abrams employs his usual lens flare and quick cuts but also does show us that it’s the characters and their relationships with one another that elevated Spielberg’s films (instead of making them Michael Bay movies), something I wish he’d remembered for The Rise of Skywalker. But it looks like a movie shot in 2011 that is trying to look like 1979 instead of a movie that feels like it’s from the era, especially in the way that everything is shot through the same dull filter.
The actors save this film. Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard (’90s flashback, people … remember him in Deep Impact and when he was dating Juliana Marguelis?) who plays Alice’s father, are great in their roles as parents. Chandler is especially great as the town deputy because he plays the “nice authority figure” very well. By contrast, Noah Emmerich as Colnel Nelec, essentially the antagonist in the movie, plays a great asshole character (and in some scenes looks as if he’s Dennis Quaid’s asshole brother). But the real praise should go to the kids, because a movie like this isn’t easy to pull off.
The story point of “kids are smarter than the adults in the movie” has been a long-running one. In fact, we see it in films directed or produced by Spielberg, like E.T. and The Goonies. But they always had a fair amount of vulnerability and seemed authentic in the way they carried themselves, even when their situations were wholly unrealistic (I’ve got a review of the 1984 movie Cloak & Dagger that will get into that). Sometime in the 1990s and 2000s, that “kids are smarter than the adults” trope got ramped up to the point where the kids were so precocious, they were mini-adults. Freakin’ Millennials, man.
All of this is to say that the kids in Super 8 are never the latter. They are written and act with vulnerability, they can carry themselves well in scary situations but are still kids, their dialogue is funny but not overly smart witty, and their interactions with one another are exactly the type that you’d expect from middle schoolers. I really liked these characters, which is saying a lot considering that I usually don’t like tween casts in movies.
So it wasn’t a total waste of my time, but instead of wanted more original and not franchise films from J.J. Abrams, I feel like watching a bunch of Spielberg movies instead.
Watch or Skip?
Eh … somewhere in the middle. Watchable but not a must watch.