Though his career went through many iterations (he started writing scripts for films like Taking Care of Business, Regarding Henry and Gone Fishing), it was TV where J.J. Abrams found his groove. There he masterminded Felicity, Alias, and helped launch Lost. Then he returned to cinema with the semi-success Mission: Impossible: III, and then earned fanboy love for his resurrection of the Star Trek franchise – which made the franchise cooler than Star Wars. For Super 8, he teamed with Steven Spielberg to make a film meant to recall the glory days of Amblin productions. How did it turn out?

The Players

  • Writer/Director: J.J. Abrams
  • Stars: Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Elle Fanning
  • Cinematography: Larry Fong

The Story

Joe Lamb (Courtney) has recently lost his mother. His protective father (Chandler) is worried about him, but isn’t around and wants to send him off for the summer to baseball camp. Joe wants to help his friends finish their monster movie, which appears to be a riff on Night of the Living Dead. They recruit Alice Dainard (Fanning), who Joe crushes on, but the night of her big scene there’s a trainwreck that lets loose… something. As their town is taken over by the military the boys try to finish their film, and Joe and Alice try to get past her father (Eldard), who had something to do with the death of Joe’s mother.

The Good

  • The Kids: Child actors are notoriously difficult to wrangle, and so when you get performances like Joel Courtney’s and Elle Fanning’s on screen, it’s a minor miracle. Both bring dimension and sympathy to their roles, and when they face the stirrings of young love, it’s a believable attraction. But the film has a group of young actors who manage to command the screen without being reduced to quirks.
  • The Set Up: ‘Though obviously cribbing from the Spielberg playbook, the opening twenty or thirty minutes set up a great little film about a child suffering from the loss of his mother, and turning to making movies (and finding love) to renew his interest in life. For the opening, Abrams does a great job of laying out how things will come in to play.

The Bad

  • The Payoff: Alas, the stuff with the alien goes nowhere good, and when the alien is finally revealed, it’s curiously unmemorable. Regardless of whether they’re scary or cuddly, from Star Wars, to the alien in Alien to E.T. to Close Encounters, when you think about those movies, you can remember the aliens. Here, when the creature is revealed, it’s a moment of “oh” instead of “awesome!” That sums up a lot of the problems with the movie, and Abrams recent “mystery box” output.And where Spielberg may have given aliens some menace in Close Encounters, Abrams uses his alien as a plot device instead of a character. The Alien kidnaps people and eats them, but then he’s not a bad guy – even though he is a bad guy for the majority of the film, which undercuts the ending so much. There is neither triumph or relief.
  • Take out the Spielberg, and…: The film seems geared to work on people who love those Amblin films of their childhood, but while Raiders of the Lost Ark was a homage to the films Spielberg and George Lucas loved as children, that film works on its own and has no one father. This has only one source, and if you aren’t nostalgic for Spielberg’s work, then the film probably won’t work for you. The classic Spielberg films work because of their elegantly simple stories (“What if an alien was your best friend?” “What if you could meet aliens, how far would you go to do so?”) This narrative is a clutter, and when you try to find something that’s more than homage, there’s little there.
  • What’s it all about?: J.J. Abrams as a director has made three films. Before that he was hot screenwriter, but if you look at those early movies, you see someone who knows how to repackage previous successful ideas. It’s a very good way to make money, but the majority of his earlier films are not that good. When you talk about his directing career, his best work is Star Trek, which gave the series back its 60′s sexual swagger and added more comic banter, which opened the characters up to a whole new generation. Three pictures in, and Abrams has little personality or curiosity as a filmmaker. Super 8 is his most personal work (if only because it’s not based on pre-existing material), and after making Star Trek viable again, it feels like the “one for you” movie as the film’s proved a hard sell. And yet when you take away the film’s love of that era of films (more so Spielberg than the film’s references to George Romero and John Carpenter), you hope to find something more. But Abrams never seems to connect to the material like Spielberg did – Joe Lamb is the audience’s avatar, but how he’s dealing with his mother’s passing, and how that relates to the narrative at hand never congeals.
  • Adding Up: The film seems to be building to the moment that the 8mm footage of the train wreck is developed, but that moment – and many moments like it – never play like the wow moments they should. Just like the tension between the two fathers or the Romeo and Juliet-esque star-crossed lovers stuff.  Or even the baseball camp threat. It peters.

Overall

The kids are enough to make this more misfire than terrible, and there’s at least two good movies in here, but Super 8 never is enough of an alien vs. the army/government movie or a film about children falling in love with making movies while dealing with loss to make either strand satisfying. Technically, Abrams is confident behind the camera and the film is put together well (obligatory “lots of lens flare” reference here), but for all the good things about it – like seeing Kyle Chandler kick a little ass – it’s less than the sum of its parts.

Score: 5/10

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