Super 8

Drugs are so bad!

Due to the fact that upstate New York movie theatres are in summer blockbuster mode (i.e. I can’t see Everything Must Go, The Conspirator, etc. without driving thirty miles), I ended up attending Super 8‘s opening night, having only recalled its existence a few hours prior.  I will try not to let my review become influenced by the fact that my hand is pulsing from a recent laser surgery or that a teenage girl mistook me for her father on the way out of the theatre.

J.J. Abrams, if you haven’t figured it out yet, loves monster movies.  He also loves Steven Spielberg, having worked as a lackey on several of Spielberg’s earlier movies.  I’m not a big fan of either, but there you have it.  I am beginning to worry about Abrams just a little.  It’s fine to be known for one thing or stick to a theme or be heavily interested in a genre, but how did a six-season monster movie (LOST) and the rollercoaster that was Cloverfield not satisfy his proverbial monster movie itch?  I think I figured it out: despite his experience with monster material, he hasn’t yet made E.T.  This film is, quite literally, an amalgamation of E.T. and Cloverfield, with Spielberg producing.

While LOST and Cloverfield were figurative trainwrecks, Super 8 features a literal one.  Suspend your disbelief before this film begins: we’re in a world where you can get hit head on by a speeding train and survive with a few cuts on your face, where children are pure and adults are oblivious, where no one is miffed at the existence of actual alien life, and where the United States Air Force is evil.  This is a new one; isn’t it usually the Special Forces?  Maybe they’re getting a pass due to recent events.

The story follows Joe (Joel Courtney) and his group of friends, all familiar personalities with specific “skills” – one is chubby and abrasive, one likes to blow things up, one is a math nerd, and one is a girl.  Funny that every group of five or six friends in movies like this are only allowed one female member, and she’s always the love interest of the protagonist.  Is there some sort of contractual agreement amongst film characters?  Is there a “no girls allowed…except you, ’cause I like you” clause?  Frustrating.

The group of friends are making an awful zombie movie, like so many young people are these days (and apparently in the decades-old period of the film’s fiction), and this eventually brings them to the site of a horrible railway accident.  I guess we’re supposed to think the train was unmanned, since a casualty count is never mentioned, and the guy who causes the accident (a middle-school teacher with whom the kids are familiar) inexplicably survives.  A mystery begins to unravel after some cryptic words from the teacher, and the kids, specifically Joe and Alice (Elle Fanning) find themselves in danger.  An additional protagonist, Joe’s father Jack (Kyle Chandler) is introduced, as he’s a police officer and the only character whom we can accompany into the Air Force’s secret places and through whom we can receive the movie’s privileged/pivotal information.

The rest of the film, as good as it is in some ways, follows two or three stories: 1) the touching, if predictable, story between Joe and Alice, whose fathers hate each other; 2) the adventures of Jack, who is left in charge of the town after the sheriff has an unfortunate run-in with a mysterious creature, and his attempts to get to the bottom of why the Air Force is futzing around in his town; and 3) a series of cliche’d, routine suspense scenes featuring the aforementioned creature kidnapping and killing the town’s citizens at random.  In some ways, it seems like three different movies, and despite this not being a film for children, per se – heads get smashed, people smoke weed, and there’s at least one F-bomb – the story comes to a satisfying and feel-good (if not hopelessly par-for-the-course) conclusion.

Without spoiling too much, Alice disappears for awhile once the film reaches the 2/3 mark.  Aside from depriving the story of any female presence, this also denudes the movie of its best performer.  She is replaced with action sequences and violence, involving unneeded villain Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich), who attempts to ship the children god-knows-where in the dumbest vehicle possible, leading to an all-out gunfight against the mysterious creature.

Despite this, the film ends with the “human” element of the story and with the important characters, which says (to some degree) that Abrams knew what this story was really about.  In addition, if you stick around for the credits, you’ll get to see the results of the movie the kids made on the Super 8 reel.  It’s truly a wonderful payoff.

I should tell you this in advance: this is about as “blockbustery” as I get when it comes to summer films.  Aside from raw disinterest, I’m not getting free/advanced screenings, so if you want to know how bad Transformers 3 is, you might want to check with Roger Ebert.

Super 8 (2011); written and directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler.