Abrams and Spielberg team up to bring an adventure about scary monsters and precocious tweens. You can guess who brought what.
For those too young to remember, before comic book movies and other geek culture dominated summer release schedules a blockbuster’s pedigree was based largely on its stars and sometimes also the director and producers involved. For about fifteen years or so, roughly between 1982′s E.T. and 1997′s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s name on a project was pretty much a license to print cash. Long on adventure and what a less jaded era called “wonder” but also cynically sentimental and patronizing towards the “magic” of youthful exuberance, Spielberg’s directorial work – E.T., the first Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade – routinely provided an idealized vision of childhood for the latchkey generation.
So it’s probably no wonder that Super 8 takes place in early summer 1979, a period that’s come to symbolize an age of low-tech innocence in much the same way that the 1950s did for the 1980′s. Spielberg as producer is well matched with J.J. Abrams, a writer/director who doesn’t mind suspending spectacle for the sake of character development. But their collaboration is less a union of strengths so much as a blending of weaknesses, making the finished film an uneven, prolonged struggle with itself. To call it a bad film is perhaps besides the point, because it never really aspires to anything besides diversionary entertainment. Except it often fails to provide that.
Set in the Springsteenesque town of Lillian, Ohio, the story focuses on tween Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his sheriff’s deputy father (Kyle Chandler), struggling with the death of Joe’s mother at the local steel mill. The two are not close, but with the beginning of summer Joe finds a creative outlet for his grief helping overbearing buddy Charles (Riley Griffiths) complete his homemade zombie film for a local film competition. Complications arise when Charles casts local dream girl Alice (Elle Fanning) in a crucial role. Alice’s alcoholic father, it seems, is indirectly responsible for the death of Joe’s mother. Joe and Alice are fascinated by one another through guilt and grief, and their friendship – forbidden by Joe’s dad as well as Alice’s (Ron Eldard) – coalesces into the bulk of the film’s emotional substance.
Courtney and Fanning are both very good actors, and backed by old pros like Chandler and Eldard it’s almost a shame that the film won’t be an engaging character piece about these simple, sympathetic victims. Yet, despite, and nevertheless, the filming of Charles’ 8-millimeter saga captures a spectacular freight train-truck collision that frees something the Air Force was transporting across country; stranger still, the truck was driven into the train on purpose by their science teacher (Glynn Turman). In short order a series of strange events plague the town – machinery disappears, all the dogs head for the hinterlands, people start vanishing. The Air Force, led by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) obviously knows something but won’t share information with local officials. When the mysterious presence grabs the town’s sheriff, Joe’s father tries to hold things together while solving the mystery.
The strange events increase, growing more violent and more dependant on special effects. Joe and the gang realize, thanks to purloined evidence from the teacher’s storage locker, that the creature they see only dimly in the footage from their wrecked camera is the prisoner of the military, an alien crash-landed on Earth in the 1950s and held prisoner ever since. As the Air Force evacuates the town and steps up its attempts to recapture the alien, Joe embarks on a mission to save Alice from its subterranean lair.
The resolutions to both stories will feel familiar to anyone who grew up with Spielberg’s films and their legions of reruns on cable. Joe’s empathy allows him to reach an entente with the monstrous alien, saving Alice’s life even while the arrogance of the adults around them cements their downfall. The kids’ fathers reconcile their differences in short order (too short, really, given their source) and the alien gets to go home thanks to a spaceship cobbled together from all those stolen appliances.
The film’s getting a lot of press about Abrams paying “homage” to Spielberg’s 80s work, but the combined effect doesn’t feel so much like tribute as parenthetical citation. A nod to Close Encounters of the Third Kind here, an oblique reference to Jaws there, and of course a tureen full of The Goonies (of which Spielberg was Executive Producer, possibly a nebulous title except the film bears so many of his hallmarks). Yet all the little details don’t serve to move the story or the characters forward but instead hang from it like tinsel. Scenes drag on or fall short before reaching their payoff, and often hammy acting by the kids only compounds the problem.
The first act, past the lovely prologue involving the funeral of Joe’s mother, goes on much longer than it should, and falls short of establishing the children’s’ personalities before the creature is set loose. The second act, by comparison, contains most of the suspense but often feels disorganized and uncertain of its priorities. For as much as Abrams is willing to pause action to let his characters breathe – and he does in a heartbreaking sequence involving Alice and Joe watching home movies of Joe’s mother – the action when it happens fails to engage on anything but the most superficial level. He also relies on too many tropes he’s used before: the contraband film strip, the underground bunkers, the renegade scientists all recall Lost too much by half, and not in a way that invites favorable comparison.
For as good as Courtney and Fanning are, less so are Riley Griffiths and Ryan Lee as Charles the filmmaker and Cary the pyromaniac. But their characters are little more than stock types, meant to occupy space and provide comic relief, as are Gabriel Basso and Zach Mills as the gang’s third string. Emmerich is a sublime character actor who deserves better roles than Nelec, a villain who would twirl his mustache if he had one.
The ending is about what you ‘d expect, sentimental and superficially brave without excpecting any real emotional engagement from the audience. Spielberg’s films, after all, always made sure their stories ended tidily for everyone, character and viewer alike. Actually, this time the audience can stick around to see Charles’ completed zombie saga in all its goofy, patchwork glory. At several minutes in length it’s a nice after-dinner mint for the rest of the film, even if it’s maybe not as charming as Abrams and Spielberg think.
- Michael Kabel