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Review: Super 8 (2011)

Super 8

Rating

Director
J.J. Abrams
Screenplay
J.J. Abrams
Length
112 min.
Starring
Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Riley Griffiths, Gabriel Basso, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Glynn Turman, Noah Emmerich
MPAA Rating
PG-13

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Review
Many kids grow up wanting to be the next Spielberg, but those who are most successful strike out with their own styles, visions and themes. But for J.J. Abrams' new film Super 8, he steals everything he can from Spielberg's tremendous '80s oeuvre and fails to make the connection that distinguishes him from his idol.

Set in a small town in the late 1970s, young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has lost his mother in a freak factory accident leaving his father to cope with the tragedy and becoming a single parent when his job as sheriff keeps him far too busy. Joe has a penchant for makeup effects, helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) put together an 8mm film about a zombie invasion. Charles hopes to win the prize at an area film festival, but needs something to goose up his production to make it a surefire winner. When he, Joe and a cadre of friends take their equipment to a nearby railway station to film one of the film's pivotal scene. To get there, they enlist the services of Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to drive them there and perform in the piece as the wife of the primary detective.

As cameras are rolling, a train approaches at breakneck speed, giving the budding filmmaker an opportunity add some flare. When they spy a rogue pickup career onto the track and race towards the oncoming locomotive, they stare in disbelieve as the two collide causing the film's only spectacular visual feast, a massive train wreck. The military train provides them with more than a few chills and as they escape the scene, a horde of soldiers swarm the area and prepare to lock down the site.

From there on, the film works as a mystery as Joe, Charles and Alice attempt to uncover the secrets of the disaster. It's clear early on that the creature, which scares all the dogs out of the region and steals electronics from around town, is an alien potentially malignant alien life form. Suspension of disbelief is required to get through much of the film as bizarre occurrences lead to some even weirder situations. While this plays out, Alice and Joe develop a romantic relationship that's complicated by their fathers' hatred of one another over an incident not revealed until late in the film.

Abrams has previous directed two films for the big screen. The first was the third film in the Mission: Impossible series and his second was the not-quite-Star Trek reboot. After two rather unimpressive efforts, Abrams has moved into the realm of original screenwriting, hoping to show that he has the ability to direct blockbusters without relying on existing properties and fanbases. The problem is that Super 8 is hardly an original screenplay. Sure, by technicality, the story is original, but when the entire picture is an homage to '80s Spielberg and borrows heavily from Steven's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., and more than a share from Rob Reiner's Stand by Me, it's hard to really call it original.

If you remember that kid in high school who would copy off his neighbor's test paper because either he was too lazy to study the night before or just didn't know the answers, Abrams is just like that. To be a great filmmaker, a director must develop his own style. Building on the past is a great start, but copying from the past is just lazy. His own hero, Steven Spielberg, recognized that right away. Of his earliest efforts, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Art, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., Spielberg forged a new style of filmmaking that shines as a beacon of what that era of cinema could produce. He crafted smart, informed blockbusters that never felt old or tired. If Abrams really wanted to emulate Spielberg, he would have gone a new route and explored some other theme. What he does with Super 8 is sloppy filmmaking.

Even today's most notorious and critically maligned directors, Michael Bay, Zack Snyder and Roland Emmerich, have carved out their own stylistic niches in the medium. They may not make great movies, but they at least understand how to build on the past without getting stuck in it. And adding lens flares every five seconds to your film does not constitute a brave new vision. It's distracting and pompous.

That's not to say that the film doesn't have its merits. Abrams does stick to Spielberg's motifs effectively and the train wreck, despite feeling utterly implausible, is a strong case for Best Single Visual Effect of the year. Courtney and Fanning (who I feel is one of the finest actresses of her generation) are quite good with Griffiths well above average. However, the adult cast and the remainder of the kids leave a lot to be desired. The kids are simply annoying with none of them leaving more than a poor impression. The short film they are making is spectacular however. Watching it at the end of the film as the credits scroll by is the highlight of the film. An entire picture made like that might not fly with audiences, but it would be quite entertaining.

In the end, the film is little more than disappointing. It's the kind of family film that would have worked well back in the 1980s when the style was fresh, but coming out nearly thirty years later, it feels a bit stale and more than a little pointless. If the boys from Stand by Me had found an alien spacecraft in lieu of a dead body, Super 8 would have been the film about it. Abrams is now zero for three in my book and, at this point, I don't know if he can ever climb his way out.
Review Written
June 28, 2011

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  1. I just saw Super 8 today and have a question: I’m researching various monster makeup publications over the years, and the film references Dick Smith’s influential publication. But Smith’s book did not come out until 1985, 6 years after the film takes place. Smith’s 100-page magazine (from Warren Publications) came out in 1965. I may have misheard the kid’s line in the film, but if it was the magazine, he would have referred to a 14-year-old publication. Can anyone confirm that the line may be accurate or inaccurate?

    • That’s a good question. Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer to it. I cannot find the reference in any online sites. My guess would be that Abrams was referring to the 1985 book since, in an interview, he said Smith had been a big influence on him. However, it’s possible that a kid interested in makeup would find any publication, even 14 years old, and use it as a reference source. So, I guess both answers could be correct, but that’s without getting to the specific reference and seeing it word-for-word and seeing if there was an accompanying image. With an image we could cross-reference the actual publications and see which had the displayed cover.

  2. Kind of interesting how different my take is from yours. I really enjoyed the movie precisely _because_ it captured the feeling of an early 80s Spielberg movie. Not even Spielberg makes them like that any more, and I wish he did! The only part I really disliked was the train wreck – by far the worst part of the movie. Way over done. It didn’t belong in a nostalgic period piece.

    • I agree to a point, though I think the effects of the train crash were among the best in the film. It did, however, feel a bit over the top. Consider just how much destruction this train did, how violent the impact of several of the cars were and it just seems a bit much. It’s like JJ Abrams saw this giant toy train set and decided he had to blow it up spectacularly. While I could see this as a metaphor for the destruction of innocence and youth, it’s too excessive and we already had that moment at the beginning of the film in the more poignant and heavy-handed scene in the factory.

  3. Spoiler warnings.

    I have to agree with a lot of these criticisms. While I enjoyed Super 8 quite a bit, I couldn’t help but think I was watching The Goonies meets E.T. meets The Iron Giant… meets a tacked on alien from Cloverfield. I would have been fine with this, really, if I walked away with the feel good moment those classic films give at the end… but I didn’t get it.

    Throughout the movie, there was this impending close encounter you knew was coming with the alien. You knew there was going to be a moment where the pain the Joe had would be an asset to help him relate to the pain the alien had endured. When it finally happened, it was such a let down. I found myself actually saying “wait, that’s it?” Then when the little pyromaniac said “WHAT?” I had to agree with him.

    At the end, it’s very forced. The conflict with the dads is resolved, but just by simple words… no bonding really, no heroic actions on either part. The parents are also closer to their kids, and you know this via hugs at the end to tell you. The kids escaped all on their own, no thanks to either dad. Everyone is closer, everyone is better, because the director said so. Then the alien takes off with a big middle finger to earth… not realizing that we’re all not bad.

    What I really feel was missing, was something to tie it all together to at the end. When Joe goes into the tunnel to rescue Alice, he should have become trapped with her. Taking the radio from a dead sheriff, Joe should have had to call his dad for help… something he’s never done. Then the two dads would have shown up. At this point, Alice’s dad should have been put into a situation where he tries to sacrifice himself to save everyone and thus gain redemption. Alice would run to him, and he’d realize she does love him. The alien could have grabbed Joe’s dad and been about to kill him. Joe then could have made a heartfelt plea to the alien to spare his father, and gone into a speech about “bad things happening”. He could have gone further, borrowing from the Iron Giant, and said don’t let these people turn you into a monster. Get past your pain, what has happened to you. Not all humans are bad, and we’re sorry for what they did. Then the alien would let the dads and the kids leave.

    Here you have an ending with tangible character growth. As it was presented, I didn’t buy it, and it was a the let down of an otherwise good homage to a Spielberg movie… lacking a Spielberg moment.

  4. I’d agree with you about the “steal[ing] everything he can from Spielberg’s tremendous ’80s oeuvre” except that Spielberg is the producer. Did you maybe think this movie was be an homage? That it’s not being done to be “unoriginal”, but for the sake of nostalgia? You seem to be very focused on the fact that it’s very clearly based off of Spielberg’s film style, but you don’t talk about the movie itself. I think you’re letting one tiny detail prevent you from enjoying what could very well be a highly entertaining film.

    Let’s have a look at this review. You have three paragraphs describing the plot of the movie, and they’re a bit on the skimpy side. I don’t mean that the paragraphs are small, I mean that they’re vague and it’s as though you felt that the movie’s plot was unimportant to reviewing the movie. You have FIVE whole paragraphs, big ones, combining your obvious disdain for JJ Abrams and “stolen” film techniques. You have one tiny paragraph complimenting the film, but even then, you turn it into a backhand by saying, “These actors were great, but showed how not great everyone else was”. I get the feeling you’re either internet trolling or this is a huge case of sour grapes and nit-picking.

    Also, on a different note, I completely disagree with your comment about Star Trek being “unimpressive”. It was an effective reboot with a fabulous cast; something to be enjoyed by old fans and new viewers. Most nit-picky “problems” had very good explanations (i.e., Admiral Archer, Delta Vega, Chekov’s accent, etc). It’s brought a number of people who would never have watched Star Trek into its universe, and that’s very high praise.

    Just sit and enjoy the movie- it’s there to entertain you! It’s your friend, not your enemy. So maybe Super 8 is an old Spielberg film directed by Abrams; ok, go with that. That’s no reason for a film to fail in most aspects; in fact, it should improve a film. Try focusing on the plot, a certain character, themes. You might find something you really like.

    • My dislike of the film was that he brought nothing new to the table and that Abrams is a derivative filmmaker with no style of his own. He’s shown no bit of originality anywhere. Even his Star Trek was lifted in parts from Star Wars and other spacefaring sci-fi films of the ’70s and ’80s. He seems so stuck in the past that he cannot bring anything new to the material. Take a look at Quentin Tarantino. Sure he’s paying homage to the style of the Blaxploitation era of the 1970s, but that doesn’t keep his films from having a very distinctive style. They are unmistakeably his films. The same can be said for other modern auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson and, even though I’m not a personal fan of theirs, the Coen Brothers.

      If Abrams really wanted to pay homage to Spielberg, he would have learned from him the value of stretching originality, expanding the role of the filmmaker in engaging the audience and delivering both entertainment value and complex narrative inventiveness. In no way does Abrams even approach that type of creativity with Super 8. He’s copying his work completely.

      Spielberg being listed as a producer does not excuse or exempt Abrams from all culpability with regard to delivering a inferior product. Consider Memoirs of a Geisha, a movie that was quite good in many respect but failed to live up to expectations. Spielberg was attached as producer on that film. He even directed the subpar Amistad. Everyone is entitled to lapses or errors in judgement. He may very well have liked and been impressed with each of those films, including Super 8, but that does not make it acceptable to borrow almost exclusively from others. He needs to get out there, live a little and stop skating on the skirt tales of others.

      As regards Star Trek, I think you’re giving too much credit to how many Trek fans he pleased, for there were many who were disappointed. As a Star Trek fan myself, I did not enjoy what Abrams did to the franchise. Star Trek as a series was never just meant to be an action film. It was meant to act as social commentary, a way to show how life could be better in the future were we inclusive (a number of people from different backgrounds were included in the cast despite not being a very common occurrence on television at that time) and ignored our faults and the faults of others in favor of mutual cooperation. In interviews, Abrams even said that he wasn’t concerned with what Star Trek fans wanted or what they liked, he wanted to make the film more like Star Wars. In the end, it was a solid action flick, but not a Star Trek film even if the cast of characters were the same.

      And do you think just because he brought people to Star Trek that it brought them into the universe? While I would like to think that it opened up a number of new people to the magic of Star Trek, I have a hard time imagining people who like movies like Transformers (all action, little substance) will find much of value in a show like Star Trek. Action often took a back seat to the narrative in the show and that’s just not that appealing to a lot of people.

      I appreciate your defense and I find that it was eloquent and well reasoned (excepting the whole “trolling” line of comments), I just don’t happen to agree with it. But that’s perfectly fine. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. If you found something ultimately rewarding in Super 8 and Star Trek, I’m glad to hear it. I did not. As a critic, I’m not supposed to agree on every film with everyone in the audience. I evaluate each film on its merits and examine that from my own frames of reference. I do not see eye to eye with my contemporaries on each film either, but we all agree that we love movies and we hate to be disappointed by them. We often hope for the silver lining and many of us look for the positive within each film. Sometimes the positives outweigh the negatives. Sometimes they don’t. I’ll admit when I’m entertained. I was entertained by Transformers 3, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a fine piece of cinema or a work of art. The same applies to Super 8.

      • Wow, Wesley, your pomposity is impressive. Rachel’s “trolling” line may be unappreciated by you, but obviously thou dost protest, and all that. Your review was second rate as its foundation, and fatuous in its structure. By the way, love the way you assign such high value to what you are: a film critic! Seriously, you seem intelligent enough to reexamine your last paragraph and with the gift of a few days and therefore – hopefully – a bit more objectivity, even you will see what I mean. “As a critic…” “I examine…” Ha! Priceless! Anyhow, try directing a movie for ONE DAY, and you will see that the work going into it would almost literally blow your mind. Carp and nip all that you will, but all you are, in the end, is somebody who sits in the audience with thousands of others, and who… trolls the internet to find out what he’s supposed to find “smart”. Just a little tiny tip? Bringing up Paul Thomas Anderson while reviewing another movie, from a different genre no less, shows a staggering lack of intellectual heft. Seriously. Just to illustrate it for you, as you probably need said illustration, There Will Be Blood to, oh, Indiana Jones? Boogie Nights to, um, ET? Get it now? To those of us who are more aquainted with the movie business, it instantly red flags a fraud. Red Flags Are Us had to shutter its doors after your review and subsequent answer to Rachel. Go pretend to love The Squid and The Whale.

        • And here, Rachel, is the perfect example of a troll. Someone who claims to find my writing pompous, but who comes off more pompous than anything I think I’ve ever written.

          And by your reasoning, “Fred”, I should love everything Michael Bay does or Uwe Boll or any other talentless hack who steps behind a camera because directing a film is “hard”. I understand perfectly what directing a film requires and I admire and respect any director who gets behind the camera and does it. However, I feel no need or desire to congratulate or cherish their work if I find it insulting, pedantic, boring, pointless, poorly written or otherwise inferior to other work.

          In the body of my review, I specifically compared Abrams to Spielberg and found him utterly lacking. He’s little more than a second-grade copier. There is no passion or individuality to his film. He borrows or steals everything without giving it his own brand. I do not compare There Will Be Blood with Raiders of the Lost Ark because they are not alike as films. I do, however, compare directorial style and the personal stamp Anderson and Tarantino put on their work and why that makes them superior directors to Abrams.

          I felt the desire to respond to Rachel because she was well reasoned in her argument and although I disagreed with her ultimate analysis, I respected her comments. If more debaters on the internet were like her, it would be a kinder, more civil and ultimately more productive internet.


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