One could say that I was intrigued by the hype surrounding “Super 8” I enjoyed the J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise in 2009, and I was interested in what he might craft when he turned his creative energies to a kids’ adventure movie.
Unfortunately Abrams took a page out his producer, Steven Spielberg’s, recent playbook, and created a film that shows great potential, but falls apart under the weight of heavy-handed direction and forced emotional moments.
Set in 1979, “Super 8” opens on a winter funeral reception at the home of Jackson (Kyle Chandler) and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney). This father and son have a strained and distant relationship made all the more difficult by the sudden accidental death of Joe’s mother, Jackson’s wife.
The film lurches forward to summer. Junior high schoolers, Joe and Charles (Riley Griffiths) kick around town and work on their zombie film with the help of friends Cary (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach Mills) and Martin (Gabriel Basso).
Charles, unsatisfied with the story in his horror short, writes in a female lead and gets classmate, Alice (Elle Fanning), to accept the role. Armed with a new character and bolstered by the growing emotional appeal in the story, Charles and gang set off for a night scene at the nearby train station.
While filming the scene, a train rounds the bend and derails after colliding with a truck. During the explosive-laden train wreck, which is so over the top as to become entirely unbelievable, the kids scatter, and come away unscathed. They collect the camera and equipment and search the wreckage for survivors, but it quickly becomes apparent that this was no accident. The children leave before they are discovered by the military troops, who descend upon the scene.
As strange occurrences and disappearances continue to mount throughout the town over the coming days, the kids realize that something weird was on that train.
While “Super 8” stays firmly focused on Joe and his friends, the film works. The interactions between the kids are exciting and feel real for kids in junior high. They tease and cuss, and flirt with impending adulthood. The jealousy driven argument between Charles and Joe in regards to Alice has all of the markers of junior high drama, and Joe’s innocent proto-romance with Alice is endearing through and through.
The problem with “Super 8” is that it isn’t just a movie about kids growing up. It’s also a movie about the relationship between a father and son, and about a town held hostage by a monster alien. These two story lines feel like afterthoughts within the film, even though the alien story motivates the actions of all of the characters, and we begin the film by focusing on the emotional distance between Joe and Jackson. Because these two stories aren’t given enough weight, the final resolution at the end of the film is rushed and unsatisfying.
Instead of giving us story and character to motivate Joe’s changing relationship with his father and his coming to terms with the loss of his mother, Abrams offers us a locket. Joe carries this talisman, worn by his mother, around with him, and whenever the viewer is supposed to feel particularly empathetic towards Joe and his loss, the locket appears. I know what I’m supposed to feel, but the trick doesn’t work.
And as far the alien? Well I guess it offers a few moments of meager surprise, but the hints, setups, and some crammed in explication just don’t come to anything. The payoff is so lame as to be almost unnoticeable.
Perhaps as Abrams built his story around the alien he, like his novice filmmaker Charles, decided he needed more emotion and story, and thus ungracefully shoehorned in some overt emotional clichés. Had Abrams not felt the need to force an emotional moment down our throats he might have created a great film, but instead we are given a mediocre film that disintegrates into bad melodrama.