Devil’s DVD Disappointment: Super 8
J.J. Abrams’ and Steven Spielberg’s (and yes, they do warrant a co-credit) Super 8 is a movie with so much potential to be fun, exciting, and vastly entertaining, but is unfortunately so self-conscious in its attempt to be E.T. 2 that the makers end up distracting, and detracting, from the story, leaving the audience holding the sad and rather flaccid bag.
In a small town in Ohio, young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) tries to distract himself from some unfortunate turns in his life, namely his mother’s death and his crumbling relationship with his emotionally distant deputy sheriff father (Kyle Chandler), by throwing himself headlong into his friends’ movie project, a zombie-detective thriller that they want to enter into a local Super 8 film festival. The story takes place in 1979 (an early background news report mentions Three Mile Island), for no discernible story-reason other than that they wanted to use ELO, Blondie, and The Knack in the soundtrack. Late one night, while filming at a vacant train station, Joe and company witness an almost-hilariously over-the-top train wreck and, later, what appears to be a large-scale military cover-up, led by the sinister Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich who, if he’s ever not played a bad, or at least ambiguously unhinged, guy, I certainly can’t think of it). But what exactly are they covering up? Why would the kids’ hated science teacher (Glynn Turman) try to give his own life to stop the train? What connection does the crash have to all the strange goings-on in town (the disappearing car engines, microwave ovens, electrical wiring, neighborhood dogs and, eventually, people)? What exactly are the thousands of strange, apparently shape shifting cubes that the train was carrying? And finally, to quote Brad Pitt from Seven, “What’s in the box??”
Although Abrams gets sole writing and directing credit for Super 8, Spielberg’s stamp is all over this movie, from the bombastically treacly score (by longtime Abrams collaborator Michael Giacchino, going full-John-Williams here) and sass-talking pre-teens to the entire (of course) family/father-son/parent-child angle. Whether this is from Spielberg’s personal involvement or from Abrams’ overly-devotional homage is unknown, but I have to assume that all of it will ultimately please no one – either you’re not a fan of it to begin with, or you’re such a fan that you will undoubtedly be disappointed by this paler version of it. Speaking personally, I remember loving E.T. when it came out, when I was 8 years old, and it was the perfect movie for an 8-year-old to see. But I’m not 8 years old anymore. I haven’t been for a very long time.
All of which, I realize, makes it sound as though Super 8 is a kids’ movie – it’s not. It’s certainly dressed as one – we have the kids as the heroes (and infinitely smarter and braver than the adults), the adults a tad one-note, their transformations a bit easy, which is fine for a movie for kids. The big train crash aside, the beginning half of the movie is mainly played for mystery, for suspense, with lots of low-angle, kids’-POV shots pointing upwards to a vast and lonely sky (again, Spielberg). Everything is shot with such wide-eyed wonderment, in fact, that when we get to the big Aliens ending, with its body count and fear level (the creature is the Cloverfield monster by way of Michael Bay’s Megatron) substantially higher than, for example, The Goonies, the tone of the movie quickly becomes very out-of-place, and all-over-the-place.
In the end, this feels more like a knowing, adult version of the favorite movies of our childhoods than those movies themselves – intentionally or not, there is a darkness, a cynical strain running through Super 8. Through much of the movie, until one of their own gets taken by the creature, these kids are not trying to save a friend, their town, or the world, only their own skins. At one point, they even whore out one of their older sisters just to get a ride into town.
While the entire Super 8 aspect of the movie looked like it was leading to something like a love-letter to movies, the moviemaking process, and by extension, childhood (the characters being obvious stand-ins for Abrams, Spielberg, probably the entire crew making this film, and most likely the only reason why the movie takes place in the 1970s), in the end it’s nothing but a convenient plot device to get these kids to capture this exact piece of evidence at this exact moment – evidence which, in the end, doesn’t really come to much anyway.
Super 8 is neither super-great nor super-bad. It’s not super-anything. Which, for a movie of this size, scope, build-up, and pedigree, is really rather unforgivable.