TMBF is a born-and-bred child of the '80s, man. That ought to make me the prime target audience for Super 8, J.J. Abrams' homage to Steven Spielberg-directed (and -produced) films of that era. The '80s, man! That was a terrific decade for a young cinephile to grow up in, and Spielberg had a lot to do with it. His movies were the stuff of my childhood - Jaws (which I was terrified to watch at the time, owing to my younger self being a total pussy), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies and probably a few more referenced in the movie that I can't place.
Most of which I also haven't watched since then. I wonder if I would've liked Super 8 better if I had.
It is the summer of 1979 in the small town of Lillian, Ohio. Four months after 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) lost his mother in a factory accident, his relationship with his widowed father Jack (Kyle Chandler), the town's deputy sherriff, is strained. But Joe has plans for the summer - helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) film his zombie movie on a Super 8 camera, along with their friends Carey (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso), and Preston (Zach Mills). Then Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) joins the cast, and young Joe is instantly smitten - but Alice's father (Ron Eldard) is linked to Joe's mother's death, and both he and Jack forbid their friendship. However, everything changes when, during a nighttime film shoot at a railway stop, a passing train derails and crashes. The kids find out that their biology teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman) may have deliberately caused the crash, and that something the train was carrying has escaped - bringing the U.S. Air Force led by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) rolling into town.
Sigh... here we go again. I liked this movie. I like J.J. Abrams and every movie he's directed and produced so far; he makes smart and exceedingly well-crafted blockbuster films (and when he took on a source material that I've long been a fan of, the results were excellent). But Super 8 always made me feel like I should like it more than I actually did. Here's what I think: in trying to blend the abovementioned four Spielberg movies into one, Abrams lost sight of the fact that they are all very different movies. Jaws is an adult horror-thriller, and its approach of hiding the monster till the end served to amp up the terror. E.T. told a story of alien contact through the wondering eyes of a child, whereas Close Encounters showed a more mature and adult perspective towards the subject. And Goonies was a purely goofy kids' adventure, as well as a slightly older kid's perspective than E.T.
Thus, Super 8's tone often feels inconsistent. The monster attack scenes are pretty damn scary and intense, probably a little too much so for kids even of our protagonists' age. When the alien is finally revealed, its design recalls the Cloverfield monster and the Star Trek ice planet creature, i.e. utterly alien and terrifying - but the film wants to combine this with Spielberg's humanistic depiction of extra-terrestrial beings (though perhaps not his War of the Worlds ones). Some of the things the alien does are never explained, and this feels like a plothole. Joe, Charles, Alice and their friends are a fun bunch, what with Carey's pyromaniacal tendencies and Martin being a constant crybaby - but they don't get enough screentime or characterization to really make an impression. And then there is Joe and Jack grieving for Joe's dead mother, shared by Alice and her own difficult relationship with her father.
This is the subplot that really dominates the entire movie, making it a sombre coming-of-age drama that doesn't mesh well with the alien monster and the kids' adventure hijinks. It's also quite clumsily resolved in a scene rife with on-the-nose dialogue that I'm finding it hard to believe Abrams wrote. Ultimately, it's the Goonies-style light-hearted adventure-comedy element that seems the most incongruous with the film's largely serious and adult sensibility, which pains me to say as it's the one I most wanted to see more of. Probably because it's the one out of Super 8's inspirations that I'm most nostalgic for; movies about kids who are smarter, braver, and have stronger moral convictions than adults is what really makes me feel like a kid again. I sure wish I was like Joe when I was 13. (I also wish I knew a girl like Alice Dainard when I was 13.)
Which brings us to the acting, which benefits from a pair of terrific young performances. Joel Courtney is as self-assured as a veteran child actor, which is even more impressive considering this is his first time acting. And Elle Fanning is as gifted as her sister Dakota; she has an intensely emotional scene that she performs heartbreakingly well. The interactions between the adolescent protagonists are one of the film's true strengths, being entirely natural and realistic without being the least annoying or cloying. They were also pretty darn funny. Exactly why I wanted to see more of them, and why I would've been quite happy if this were just a virtual Goonies remake.
Incidentally, yes, The Goonies is the '80s Spielbergian movie I have most recently rewatched since its original release. Maybe I would've liked Super 8 more if I'd watched E.T. or Close Encounters more recently, or at least remembered more of them. Most of its glowing reviews have raved about the pitch-perfect recreation of an entire generation's cinematic memories, and there's no denying Abrams has succeeded at it - but despite being of that exact generation, I didn't really feel it enough. So maybe it's just me. I certainly can't find it in me to fault the movie too much, since it's still a great sci-fi summer blockbuster suffused with heart, soul, terror and wonder. We can never have too many of those.
NEXT REVIEW: Green Lantern
Expectations: oh dear