If you’re set on seeing Super 8, which many people probably are, here’s one piece of advice: stay put for the closing credits, because the intentionally hammy short film that plays over them has some of the most pleasing moments in the entire film. The real movie, which was both written and directed by J.J. Abrams, has all of the corniness of the short film, without the intention. What’s meant to be humorous and moving and nostalgic ends up feeling tiresome and tedious and derivative.
Not unlike Zach Snyder’s recent Sucker Punch, Super 8 is the case of a viscerally energetic filmmaker having his talents soiled by a screenplay of underwhelming originality and significance. Abrams’ nostalgic intentions, which are in no way anything but admirable, cease to carry any legitimate power, mostly because none of the director’s stylistic or aesthetic choices contribute to a central story of even the slightest potency.
That the group of child actors on display here are working at an incredibly high level is just one of the many ways that this film disappoints. (The astounding special effects, the meticulous sound work, and another solid score from Michael Giacchino are also among the film’s solid, but ultimately wasted elements.)
Joel Courtney, in his first role, stars as Joe Lamb, the son of a sheriff (Kyle Chandler) in a small, fictional Ohio town called Lillian. Joe’s best friend is Charles (Riley Griffiths), a loud and driven filmmaker who has employed his group of friends to help him shoot a plot-less zombie movie for an upcoming youth film festival. Joel’s primary contribution is in the makeup department; the unpredictable Cary (Ryan Lee) plays the zombies and operates the camera; Martin (Gabriel Basso) plays the story’s main detective; Preston (Zach Mills) operates the boom mic, among other things; and the newly-recruited Alice (Elle Fanning) plays the detective’s wife.
Not long into the film, the crew has a midnight shoot at the local train station. After a few takes, there’s a massive train crash that the kids are lucky to survive. There’s another witness to the explosion, the school’s science teacher, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), but he warns the kids away from the scene of the accident. Of course, contrary to his desires, Woodward’s fierce warnings make the kids, particularly Joe, want to investigate all the more.
This is, in effect, all the information Abrams gives the audience about the train crash for the majority of the film. He relies on a handful of mediocre subplots to fill in the middle sections. One involves a love story between Joe and Alice; another, presented in a few painfully cliché scenes, involves a conflict between the fathers of Joe and Alice.
While there’s usually a lot going on in the film, none of it ever seems to pack any lasting substance. The dialogue, which is sporadically amusing, more often than not succumbs to forced humor. And that’s essentially the problem of the film’s entire nostalgic vibe. It’s mechanical and forced, rather than organic. Entire scenes — even sequences — are created merely for retroactive laughs. And, like the film, these scenes are paper-thin, and instantly forgettable.
There’s little question that Paramount Pictures gave Abrams some leeway after the grand success of his Star Trek. What’s interesting to speculate, though, is how that leeway will impact Abrams’ future in feature-length filmmaking. It seems strange, at least to me, that a director, at a time when he’s being given the most freedom, would choose to craft such a conventional picture. As one of the creators of Lost, Abrams is clearly a guy with a lot of ideas bouncing around in his head. Why not explore some of those? Why not go for something radical?
The logical answer is that the experience of a Spielberg blockbuster has a firm place in Abrams’ heart, and that he couldn’t possibly pass up the chance of paying homage to one of his idols. Fine. I get it. I’m not a fan of the finished product, but the film is likely to please enough of the masses to make a decent profit. Let’s just hope that Abrams goes for something more daring next time around, because the unfortunate irony of Super 8 is a painful one: like the movie buffs at the heart of his own story, Abrams has all the production quality in the world, without a story to give it purpose.
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