Following on from a decent but problematic “Mission: Impossible” sequel and a muscularly inventive albeit shallow reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise, the third directorial effort from J.J. Abrams starts out as a nostalgia-fuelled homage to the early days Amblin Entertainment and Steven Spielberg’s oeuvre. As it progresses however, this less emotional “Stand by Me” morphs into “Cloverfield: The Small Town Years” and ultimately comes apart in its attempts to fuse an earnest and sweet coming of age tale with a far less effective sci-fi/horror creature feature.
What Spielberg was a master at, and what Abrams attempts to achieve here is to explore the emotions of a suburban family’s fracturing and ultimate coming together with the help of an external force of nature. Sentimental? Sure, but Spielberg’s work in the 80’s was often deft at fusing awe-inspiring blockbuster action thrills and satisfying character-driven storytelling with pitch-perfect pacing. Employing good actors with solid scripts, he seemed to understand right down to his bones a formula that would appeal to the masses, that didn’t insult one’s intelligence, and that proved just as rewarding in subsequent viewings.
Abrams tries his best to follow that style both in terms of not only content but the way in which it was shot. From several almost slasher movie-esque sequences with the creature only glimpsed at, to lots of close-ups of kids looking off-camera in awe – the film convincingly portrays its 1979 time period and old filmmaking style with the illusion only shattered when unconvincing CG elements come out to play.
Though touted as one of the few original films of the summer, the story is something of a pastiche of cliche. After the death of his wife in a workplace accident, a small town sheriff (Kyle Chandler) and his son (Joel Courtney) are having issues coping with their grief in the way a lot of men do. The young teen is the make-up artist on his friend’s amateur zombie movie, and they’re out filming one night when a military train crash leads to the escape of a dangerous alien creature who begins taking people. As the military comes in to try and contain it, you can guess where it goes from there.
The kids themselves are quite good and are thankfully portrayed as kids, not strangely self-aware thirty-somethings in teen bodies. Courtney as our protagonist Joe is adorable and convincing (in a generic way) while his friends Riley Griffiths and the braced teeth Ryan Lee provide comic relief with the odd touch of young pathos in fairly familiar roles. The scene stealer is Elle Fanning as Alice, already a formidable actress for someone of her age who invests what could’ve been a underdone role with more weight than written. There’s an audition scene almost akin to Naomi Watts’ one in “Mulholland Drive” that makes you see the incredible potential this girl has.
In fact the adults come off the poorer here. Chandler is fine if a little generic as the father, Ron Eldard with a really bad haircut provides something of an ineffectual minor antagonist as Alice’s guilt-ridden father. Noah Emmerich as the faceless military man, Glynn Turman as a teacher who causes the crash, and David Gallagher as a stoner camera store clerk are all bland ciphers purely there for plot purposes (and in the latter case to provide some of the weaker jokes of the film). In fact, Joel McKinnon Miller and Jessica Tuck as the seemingly perfect and accepting Mr. & Mrs. Kaznyk provide sharper and more memorable turns despite being essentially cameos.
On a technical level it’s as proficient as you’d expect from Abrams, plus it employs his trademark motifs throughout – lens flares galore, metaphoric macguffins such as a mother’s necklace and a bunch of little cubes, and a Michael Giacchino score (arguably amongst his weakest to date). However, unlike his two previous films, there’s a definite sense of personal investment on Abrams part. Because he penned the script for this, one gets the impression he had difficulty standing back and objectively judging his material. As a result, there are definite issues with the script he has either ignored or exasperated through his direction.
They begin with the film’s biggest set piece – the train crash. It’s a superbly executed and thrilling sequence which Michael Bay will no doubt be adding to his stroke reel as I type this, but it’s also the first indicator of the tonal disparity here. Before that point we had a well realised and charming little character piece. From that point, the film essentially splinters into two separate entities that remain detached from each other for the second act.
The alien and military storyline starts to come to the fore and on this front Abrams resoundingly drops the ball. Be it the attacks that seem more like a pale Ridley Scott imitation than a loving Spielberg homage, to the scheming military authority figures and Chandler becoming a small town Nancy Drew in his attempts to find the truth. While films like “E.T.” and Richard Donner’s “The Goonies” smoothly integrated the spectacle with the character moments, here they’re wrestling for control in a bitter tug of war match that makes the movie as a whole less engaging.
The kids, whom we were initially so enamoured with, become less interesting as the hunt for the alien storyline starts to take over. The script begins making unnatural adjustments to their characters in order to service the plot, though they fare better than some of the adults who undergo complete 180-degree changes in ways that feel forced and undeserved.
The alien is kept off screen for the most part, electrical surges and blackouts hinting at its presence and its actual form only glimpsed in shadow or very brief reflection until near the end. It’s a move to build suspense that fails to work because we’re not in fear of it. In “Jaws” we knew what sharks do, so we had an idea of the nature of that threat. In Scott’s “Alien” you had proper flashes of the creature.
Here though it simply throws around dustbins and annoys electricians. As the third act comes around, the entire film turns into something of a small town “Cloverfield” – apt in some ways considering the poorly realised monster looks like they took that film’s creature design, shrunk it in size and added an extra pair of legs. The kids are now running around avoiding military convoys and crawling through caves to avoid being eaten.
Of course one young boy believes the creature is a justifiably angry and misunderstood being, and the only way both of them will find the solace they seek is to reconcile their painful pasts. It all comes together for a finale as metaphors are rammed home with the subtlety of a proctologist on a cocaine bender.
There’s a desperate need for an emotional release which the film simply doesn’t earn, making the climax hollow and trite rather than cathartic and sincere. Ultimately the entire endeavour feels let down by a surprising hesitancy on Abrams’ part to stick entirely with a more commercially risky young coming of age story. The kids are strong enough to carry such a film and in the early stages of the movie he demonstrates that he could handle such a story with self-assurance.
The wedging in of generic genre elements however not only fail to add awe, wonder or spectacle, they also rob proceedings of the heart it had begun to build. He’s not been helped by an ad campaign of mixed messages and the expectations of both a studio and an audience who have put far more pre-conceived pressure on this than it deserves.
The sincerity, the performers and the technical skill is all on hand while the nostalgia might be enough to carry it with some audiences, but “Super 8” simply won’t be talked about as either a highlight of the year or season – it simply fails to work despite the commendable effort put into it. Capturing that magic is something that has eluded even Spielberg himself on certain occasions (“1941,” “Always,” Indy 4), it’s not a fun lesson to learn but it’s one all filmmakers experience. Welcome to the club Mr. Abrams.