Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Riley Griffiths, Gabriel Basso, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Glynn Turman, Noah Emmerich
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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.
June 28, 2011