Oct 2, 2020
Super 8 (2011)
[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Greyson F. Enjoy!]
Steven Spielberg has directed some of the greatest cinematic achievements ever, but in recent years, he’s focused more on producing than directing. And one of the films he produced is 2011’s Super 8, ostensibly the story of a group of kids who make a home movie and end up capturing footage of something otherworldly. But in reality, it’s the story of director J.J. Abrams self-consciously imitating the films of Spielberg’s golden age down to the letter, producing a film that’s a near clone of his biggest hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s E.T. meets Close Encounters meets The Goonies (another film Spielberg produced) meets lots and lots of lens flares.
This is J.J. Abrams’ fourth feature film as a director, released in between his two Star Trek movies. Compared to those films, Super 8 looks like a minor diversion, a time-killer in between big budget tentpoles, and it’s sure to become even more of a footnote once Star Wars: Episode VII hits cinemas. It was obviously born out of nostalgia, and it seems Abrams uses the excuse of having Spielberg himself involved in the project to shamelessly copy his style. The problem with this approach is the movie really has no other reason to exist. Take away the whole concept of paying homage to Spielberg, and there’s no way Super 8 would have ever gotten made.
This review will get a bit spoiler-y, though I don’t think anything happens in this thing that you couldn’t already figure out from the trailers.
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The story is set in the year 1979, where we meet a group of kids using a Super 8mm camera to create a zombie movie for a local film festival. 14 year old Joe (Joel Courtney) is the movie’s makeup artist and our protagonist, and his pal Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the director. At the start of the film, Charles reveals that he talked neighborhood girl Alice (Elle Fanning) into being in the movie, and it’s immediately obvious that Joe has a crush on her.
While shooting an important scene at a train station, Charles spots a train quickly approaching, and wants to catch it passing in the background to add excitement to his film. Charles and the gang quickly set up the shot, but in the middle of the take, a truck suddenly drives onto the tracks and causes the train to derail in a spectacular wreck.
Like any group of children would, they curiously investigate the wreckage, and find their teacher sitting in what’s left of that truck. Barely alive, he pulls out a gun, points it at the children, and tells them to forget everything they just saw.
Frightened and afraid, the children flee the scene as a large convoy from the local Air Force base reaches the wreckage. But not before they retrieve their Super 8 camera, which was running the whole time, as well as a strange cubical object that Joe brings home with him (and which magically changes shape when he’s not looking).
The kids vow never to speak of what they saw, and soon they send out their film to be developed (and we get an obvious joke about how back in ye olden days, you actually had to wait for film to be developed). Over the next few days, all sorts of strange events take place in the town, including all the dogs running away, lights constantly flickering, car engines and appliances disappearing, and worst of all, several people go missing. This leads up to a moment where that cubical object suddenly comes alive and shoots out through the wall of Joe’s bedroom.
In a rather blatant Close Encounters riff, the military intentionally starts a wildfire as a pretense to evacuating the town. Somehow, in the middle of all this, Joe and friends finally get the film back, and it shows a large, multi-limbed creature coming out of the wreckage of the train. Meanwhile, Alice goes missing, and it seems she’s been abducted by the same creature they caught on film.
The kids break into their teacher’s stash of old films, and learn a spaceship crashed in the town back in the late 1950s, and the Air Force captured an alien during this event. Their teacher was one of the military men holding the creature captive, and there was an incident where he and the alien made physical contact, causing them to form a psychic link. The teacher began to empathize with the creature, and was actually trying to set it free when he caused the derailment.
After lots of running around and being chased by the military, Joe finds the alien’s underground lair, and discovers all the missing townspeople, including Alice. It turns out the alien has been using the captured people for food, and it seems ready to eat Alice and Joe.
But Joe takes a cue from his teacher and forms his own psychic link with the alien, convincing it that there’s no reason to harm anyone. After a long pause, the alien seems to understand. It then recreates its spaceship by drawing in all the scrap metal in town, and we’re reminded of Close Encounters once again as the final shot is of the spaceship taking flight, away from the city and into the night sky.
The credits roll to the fictional Super 8 zombie movie the kids shot, called The Case. It’s a cute thing to include, but one wonders why the kids still gave a crap about the film festival considering all the chaos and carnage and extraterrestrial contact going on around them.
There also a huge maudlin subplot running through all of Super 8, beginning with a prologue where we learn Joe’s mom died in a horrible accident at the steel mill. Alice’s alcoholic dad is guilt-ridden over her death, because she was covering his shift while he was home nursing a hangover. We see that Joe still watches old home movies of his mom, and also carries a locket that used to belong to her. At the end, when the alien is magnetically assembling pieces for his spacecraft, Joe struggles to hang onto his mom’s locket as it gets pulled from his hand. But eventually… he lets go. Do you get it? Do you get the metaphor here?
Unfortunately, this whole emotional undercurrent feels forced upon us. Despite losing his mom, Joe seems pretty well adjusted. His deputy dad (Kyle Chandler) might be a little bit distant, but his home life is rather serene compared to Alice and her drunken, abusive dad.
From the closing scenes, I assume we’re supposed to draw the conclusion that the whole point of the movie was for Joe and the alien to bond over their mutual tragedies. But for one thing, Joe seems to be mostly at peace with losing his mom. And for another, losing a loved one in an accident is an entirely different world of emotions away from being intentionally held hostage for decades. Super 8 drowns us in Spielbergian sentimentality, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to flow naturally from the plot, making it feel cheap and artificial.
But I will give credit where credit is due: Abrams’ imitation of the look and feel of ‘70s and ‘80s blockbusters is nearly flawless. Take away the lens flares and current actors and you’d probably think this was a ‘70s movie if you happened to flip past it on TV. As part of the retro feel, Abrams avoids the current trend of loose camerawork, going for more of a locked-down to the tripod style. His love affair with the lens flare is of course well-documented, but it kind of works here as Abrams’ calling card, preventing his style from being completely subsumed by the Spielberg impersonation he’s doing.
But while Abrams has the visual chops, he falters again and again with scripts that let him down. And that includes Super 8, even though he wrote the script himself. Despite the title of the movie, the actual 8mm footage the kids accidently capture never factors into the plot. By the time they get the film developed, it’s obvious to all the authority figures in the movie (and us in the audience) that an alien has escaped.
It seems like what should have happened is the kids have to try to convince the townspeople that an alien is on the loose, but no one believes them. And so it becomes critical for them to find the film (which perhaps gets lost or stolen at some point) to convince people to listen to them. Sure, that would have made the kids’ film into a more predictable MacGuffin, but at least it would have kept the plot going forward somewhat.
As it is, the movie becomes a bore once Abrams opens up his “mystery box” and explains everything. It ends up leaning far too much on comic relief moments to keep things lively (mostly on the part of Charles, who’s basically the Chunk of the group). One or two jokey lines connect, but after that, it seems like Abrams decided at some point to turn the movie into a ‘80s comedy because he was out of ideas. Towards the end I was ready for some relief from the comic relief.
One of Spielberg’s most famous and cherished movies is E.T., the story of a young boy who befriends an alien who’s just trying to get back home. Well, just imagine what that movie would have been like if E.T. ate people. Incredibly, we’re still supposed to feel sympathy for the alien even though it kills people and could have left on its own accord at any point following the train wreck. Overall, the blatant sentimentality clashes with the many aspects of horror and governmental conspiracy. This is a film that mixes E.T. and Close Encounters, but never stops to think if these two stories were compatible in the first place.
But in a way, it’s an interesting concept, considering the script for E.T. started out as a sequel to Close Encounters called Night Skies. Perhaps Super 8 is the closest we’ll come to having a glimpse of what Night Skies would have been like, and perhaps the best explanation we’ll get for why Spielberg wisely decided to ditch the concept and go in a totally different direction. If only he could have advised his new friend J.J. to do the same.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]