Theatrical Review: Super 8

Our setting is a small Ohio town of Lillian in the late 70s.  Young Joe Lamb has just suffered through the death of his mother and has difficulties dealing with his father, who’s one of the deputies on the town’s police force.  Joe has a group of friends who he makes short movies with shot with a Super 8mm camera.  He and his friends are currently making their own zombie movie, somewhat inspired by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. One night, Joe and his friends are out by an old train station shooting a scene.  As they’re getting ready to shoot this key scene, a train passes by.  Joe looks out in the distance and sees a truck driving towards the tracks.  The driver of the truck takes his vehicle right on the tracks on a direct collision course with the train.  A devastating impact occurs that in turn unleashes some unknown entity upon this unsuspecting community.

That’s the basic premise to Super 8, the newest movie from director J.J. Abrams, the creator of the TV show Alias, one of the creators behind TV’s Lost and the director of such movies as Mission: Impossible III and the wildly successful Star Trek reboot.  This is the first time, as far as I know, that Abrams has teamed with producer Steven Spielberg.  With a pedigree like that, you certainly hope for the best with this movie, the promise is certainly there.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t quite all come together in a satisfying way.

I was really looking forward to this movie.  In a summer filled with sequels and comic book movies (not that there’s anything wrong with that), Super 8 looked like it was going to be something a little bit different than what was coming down the road.  Abrams has basically stated that this was somewhat autobiographical for him and working with Spielberg, it gave him the chance to homage some aspects of Spielberg’s 70s films.  The early trailers for the film were very promising being mostly pure teaser and not really giving a whole lot away.

Super 8 references other movies that Steven Spielberg made both as a director and a producer.  Those movies include Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E. T., The Goonies and Poltergeist. On the surface, there’s really nothing wrong with doing that but the way it’s mixed together here just never quite comes together for me.  As the events unfold, there’s a pretty hard terror aspect involved which actually is quite nice, but it’s resolution tries to put a heartwarming spin to the whole thing that just feels forced. A very clunky explanation is given to the true nature of this entity that terrorizes the area.  That story in itself is a little too big to be satisfyingly told in the space of this film and still have a proper emotional resonance.  This would’ve worked better had Abrams decided to go either all the way with either pure terror or with heartwarming sense of wonder.  As it is, he’s trying to mix the two and both get short-changed.

The kids themselves are fairly engaging when they’re all together.  It’s when we’re seeing a couple of them deal with their own personal issues is where things start to fall apart.  Joe (played by Joel Courtney) and a young girl who he’s attracted to, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), both have issues with their fathers (Kyle Chandler as Joe’s father and Ron Eldard as Alice’s) as a result of what caused the death of Joe’s mother.  Neither relationship has a whole lot of perspective attached to it in regards to what things were like before Joe’s mother was killed.  Things are somewhat resolved between both parents and their kids by the film’s end, but that resolution feels entirely forced without having any sort of idea of what it used to be.

Noah Emmerich plays Colonel Nelec, the leader of a military force that’s been sent to Lillian to contain what’s happened.  Now there’s really nothing wrong with anything that Emmerich does, but it’s the general portrayal of the military that gives me some issue here.  They’re pretty much presented as nearly the same sort of malevolent force that they’re trying to quell and it’s all just on one simplistic note.  Again, I think that’s a result of trying to mash-up two distinct tones for the overall movie and not having enough time to get them all to adequately pay off.

To it’s credit though, I think the movie does have a good look to it, even though sometimes I think Abrams takes things a little too far in trying to reference the look of a Spielberg movie from the 70s.  Michael Giacchino produces another terrific score for the film and the visual effects are pretty well done.  The initial devastation with the train is particularly well done.

But still, I cannot give this Super 8 a recommendation.  The premise is certainly decent, but it goes to the extremes for the two tones that it’s trying to mix without the proper filler to make it all seem really cohesive.  I’m sorry to say that as I’m a big fan of J.J. Abrams.  Here’s hoping things fare better when he returns to the future with the ext Star Trek movie.

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

12. June 2011 by Darren Goodhart
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