A buddy of mine had some minor surgery this week. I was hoping to stop by and check in on him but as it is wont to do, the week got away from me. When he texted me on Saturday night to tell me he was taking painkillers and watching Green Hornet, I knew I had to step in immediately and get him out of the house. We hit up Super 8 on a Sunday matinee and as the film started, immediately I was transported back to my childhood in the early 80’s when we’d get out of school for the summer, spend a ton of time at the theater and each movie felt like it was the best thing we’d ever seen, until the next time we went to the theater. It was a feeling I haven't experienced since at least 1989.
That’s not to say that Super 8 is the best movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s very reminiscent of the early 80’s Steven Spielberg blockbuster fare in a style, if not substance, that is so rare today. On its face Super 8 is a retelling of E.T. A young boy and his bike riding gang of friends encounter a troubled alien that just wants to get back to his home world. Except in Super 8, the alien is four stories tall and eats people. I would go further to say that the Spielberg/J.J. Abrams producing/directing combination results in E.T. meets Cloverfield.
The film tells the story of Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a 13 year-old, who has recently lost his mother in a steel mill accident. His father, played by Kyle Chandler, is a local sheriff's deputy, whose inability to deal with the death of his wife leads to the deputy burying himself in his job.
With his mother gone and his relationship with his father faltering, Joe decides to help his friends in the production of a homemade zombie movie, in the hopes of entering the film into a festival. The 8 mm film's cast includes Joe's chubby best friend director, a future arsonist and the daughter of the man who Deputy Lamb blames for the death of his wife, whom Joe is totally crushing on and is forbidden from associating with.
During filming at a train station, the gang's 8mm camera records a devastating train accident, which reveals that the train's cargo is not of this world, and the Air Force arrives to lock down the accident site, and soon the town, as bizarre occurrences begin to take place.
Visually it looks like a Spielberg film, the way shots are laid out and certain camera angles seem so familiar. And like Spielberg, Abrams is able to get the most out of his young actors in a way that few directors are able to do. But there are also the usual Abrams tells. There’s a mystery that Abrams is able to develop and keep going for three quarters of the movie. There’s an alien that you never do quite get to see until the end (it looks kind of like all of J.J. Abram’s other aliens – the Cloverfield Monster and the Delta Vega monster from Star Trek). There’s the hurried final act where all the pieces are put together even in a way that isn’t explained to the viewer’s liking. And yes, there’s the god damn lens flares. A poorly lit train station in 1979 Anytown, Indiana is no different from the bridge of the Enterprise, apparently.
But the third point is really my beef with everything that Abrams does. He’s got great ideas for stories and knows how to develop them in a way where the viewer is truly invested, he just doesn’t know how to end them in a way that doesn’t feel rushed or ham-fisted. It’s as if he looks at his watch, determines that he’s got an hour and fifty five minutes of movie and needs another 5 minutes to tie it all together. Cloverfield just ended, after you followed the characters on a harrowing journey through the streets and tunnels of New York. Star Trek just ended, with a kid in his final year of Starfleet Academy now in charge of the only remaining starship in the fleet. And don’t get me started on Lost, which I quit after two seasons out of pure frustration.
That shouldn’t take away from the rest of the film, because as hurried as the last quarter of the movie seems, it’s still done in a better way than Cloverfield or Star Trek. The acting is great. Elle Fanning already appears to be a better actress than her sister and Joel Courtney brings out all the emotion - dealing with the loss of his mother and his resulting solitude that his friends and father don’t understand - that you felt from watching Henry Thomas and his connection with E.T.
The adult actors are just as compelling. Noah Emmerich plays the typical head military goon in charge that you expect in these types of films. You can identify with Kyle Chandler’s Deputy as the town depends on him to be focused and diligent while he struggles raising his son the right way without his wife. And Ron Eldard plays the drunken town ne’er do to perfection, even if he looks like Iggy Pop while doing it. As a side discussion for another time, I contend that Kyle Chandler is what network TV execs were hoping Ron Eldard would be in the late 90's.
My problems with the ending aside, Super 8 is a really well-crafted film. And despite J.J. Abrams being listed as director, it’s more of a Spielberg movie than Spielberg has done since Jurassic Park. If anything, I hope this reinvigorates Spielberg to 1) get back to his roots the next time he wants to make a summer blockbuster type film and 2) hang out with J.J. Abrams more and George Lucas less if he’s looking for a good story or inspiration.