Super 8 aspires to be a lot. After the first few scenes of the film you can see the attempts at the charm of Spielberg’s charm from the 80s and 90s trying it’s hardest to fuse with Abram’s sensibilities about portraying suspense on the screen and his way of establishing mystery. Super 8 isn’t a bad film, in fact I actually really liked it. However I don’t think it’s as good as it thinks it is, or even as good as collaboration between two of the strongest filmmakers of all time could be, mainly undone by a clumsy final act. The film starts up in a small town in Ohio, where Joe Lamb is still grieving over the loss of his mother from a horrific factory accident. While Joe is helping his friends (including up and coming, young filmmaker Charles Kaznyk) shoot their zombie movie at the local train station, the kids narrowly escape a sudden, violent, and explosive train wreck. Pretty soon it appears that train crash is more than it appeared, as more and more strange phenomenon start occurring around town, people start vanishing, and the military begins an unwelcome and sinister participation in the “clean-up process”. The story’s been passed around a thousand times how Steven Spielberg’s always treated the kids in his films, in that he talks to them and directs them the same way he directs Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Robin Williams as Peter Pan, or Roy Scheider as Martin Brody. This is accredited to the phenomenal performances Steven gets out of his kids. Watching Super 8, you can sense that “Spielberg Tutoring” going on, as almost all the main kid actors’ performances in the film are trademark Spielberg. Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, and Zach Mills are all far better than most kid actors that are 99% of the time painfully phoning it in within the standard family film. I really liked Riley Griffiths’ role as the young director Charles, and I’d love to see him get more parts in the future even if it’s not with his best bud Spielberg. He really demands a lot of attention on screen, which is great and makes him really fun to watch. Plus his verbal sparring and comedic timing was fantastic. Noah Emmerich is your standard, tough-skinned military colonel as Colonel Nelec, and Kyle Chandler’s heart breaking take as Joe’s dad Jackson Lamb is a high point for the movie. Chandler convincingly brings that gruffness and hidden (sometimes not so much) sorrow to Jackson Lamb, all the while carrying himself with that stern “when I say no I mean it” attitude that reminded me a lot of my own father. Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota Fanning, comes out of nowhere and delivers a hard-hitting, very intelligent and yet still puzzling portrayal as Alice Dainard a.k.a. our love interest. I was also really surprised how much I was captivated by Ron Eldard’s role as Alice’s deeply troubled father Louis, and I found there to be a lot of honesty and genuine care put into making that character’s tragedy effective. Of course there’s also Joel Courtney as our lead Joe Lamb, and while it gets the job done (the kid has charisma), it was a bit discouraging that he got out-done by the adults in a movie about childhood. It’s these awesome performances (specifically the kids and in many scenes the super talented older cast) that give Super 8 its strongest pull. Much like JJ Abrams’ 2008 hit Cloverfield, Abrams makes sure to build a strong set of characters in a believable world before unleashing havoc. In contrast to the 15 minutes of exposition before the crap really hits the fan in Cloverfield, in Super 8 almost 3/4 of the film’s run time is thankfully dedicated to building the obscurity of this town’s new menace. There are a lot of great character moments in the time we get to spend with these kids, including some very dramatic family moments, some hilarious banter between the kids involving the kids attempting to finish Charles’ newest film, all sprinkled by a couple of incredibly effective thriller sequences that get the blood going and the anticipation rising as to what’s going to be revealed to us in the final act. I loved the fact that these moments with the kids feel so genuine, and that there’s a lot of time and care put into crafting a really interesting small town (much like the one I grew up in) and slowly sharpening our own anticipation to where we just can’t bear to think what might happen to these great characters in the final minutes. There’s a lot of exposition handed to us in chunks throughout the film, including some key explanations as to why certain characters behave the way they do all tossed at us at once and then the final, revealing description of the “force” invading the town being slapped on us in one awkward scene towards the end of the movie. I really dug the idea of telling this formulaic story in a very sweet, charming environment, as it makes the final moments all the more terrifying and real to us. We really care about what’s happening to the kids because they feel just like the kids that live down the street from us, and it adds an extra, efficient layer of impending doom and danger. But whether it’s because of a rushed script or just an inability to deliver on the goods, I felt like Super 8 played its cards too early in the film and mostly whimpers out in the final act. There’s not a single part of the film that’s “bad”, it’s just built up too much, both by the film’s immense hype in the film community brought on by the trailer and the hype within the film itself. It’s just sort of a bummer to see a character-driven, very suspenseful and heartfelt story of imagination and childhood delve into what felt like a monster-chase movie we’ve seen a thousand times before in the final 30 minutes. It just felt like a different film at times. It felt tonally different as well, taking on a darker, more morose vibe and ultimately playing it far too safe. As I said, even the strictly thriller final act is still a solid movie, it’s just like if someone overwrote the final act of your Die Hard VHS with Taken. Another thing that really helps the film stand out is the emphasis on style.
Much like Matthew Vaughn’s brilliant X-Men: First Class, the movie takes subtle advantage of its time period, submerging us in 1979’s America with the cars, fashion, and even technology (I had a heck of a time trying to figure out what year this movie took place in) without being overbearing. Through the film’s style it also becomes very apparent the film was built from the ground up for movie geeks. Spielberg’s style and Abrams’ style are a perfect marriage that I’d willingly pay to see get back together again. Like I said earlier the kid actors are obviously Spielberg-trained, and even the way the kids talk in such a sharp entertaining way is somehow a clear cooperation b/w Abrams and Spielberg. The way the world has such a childlike wonder to it, the very sleek approach to concealing a mystery, and of course the gorgeous lens flares that infuriate some are just a few of the elements that show Spielberg and Abrams fingerprints all over the project. Speaking of the visual flourishes Abrams brings to the table, one thing Super 8 does really really well is its effect sequences. Like I’ve stated multiple times, there are a couple of “suspense” sequences that are really effective. Not only because they’re efficiently playing to the mystery of the monster, but also because a lot of the scene is done with practical effects. That car you see being demolished, the windows being obliterated, and the poor helpless soul being dragged out of the camera’s view, it’s all real. I’ve stood on my soapbox before about how I always prefer the real to the computer-generated whenever it’s possible; as it’s been proven in other films of Abrams and even Chris Nolan’s Batman films the physical presence of these effects adds so much more weight to what’s actually going on. While there’s no way it could have avoided using computer effect (it’s just not possible to put something like that on film), the much-advertised train-crash sequence that comes in about 20 minutes into the film is jaw-dropping in the most literal sense of the phrase. It almost felt like they were going to blow the speaker systems in our theater. There are so many quick shot changes that always give you a great view of what’s going on, so many huge explosions, an incredibly chaotic sense of destruction that leads you to believe death is waiting at any corner, and so much more surrounding children that haven’t even hit puberty yet. It’s a very tense, loud, and dangerous sequence that will leave you gasping for breath just like the kids who have narrowly escaped with their lives. It’s by far the film’s most brilliant moment, a moment that’s unfortunately not matched ever again. While the CGI shots (the few that stay on the screen long enough to be studied) during the train wreck sequence looked great, there are a few computer-generated shots that didn’t look particularly great and quite frankly a little unfinished, the majority of which came during the film’s climax I won’t spoil. I find it ironic how much this film works as a great inspiration to kids in that it does work really well to casually approach themes of letting go with the loss of a parent or even indulging in your creative passions and letting your imagination run wild. I had entertained the thought that the whole film could be a metaphor for imagination, and that the “conspiracy” of the town and even the train crash were all a made-up story as part of Charles’ and Joe’s wild imagination, but the film never comes close to supporting my notion. Either way, the movie does effectively take on these ideas and I feel taught the kids in my screening an important lesson by the time the movie was over. However because of the pervasive language (for a PG-13 film), there’s no doubt in my mind I wouldn’t have been able to watch this movie when I was 12 (around Joe’s age). There are a lot of “s-grenades” even by the kids, and it all compiles into enough to profanity to out-class this as a kid’s movie in my mind. Sure it’s a movie about childhood (and our own childhood depending on the viewer), but by no means is it a film made for kids, which is a little disheartening. This movie also fell into the trend, being a PG-13 film, of shoehorning in the one use of the “F-word” allowed in a PG-13 movie. It didn’t really bother me, but it was a really inopportune and ridiculously unnecessary addition to a movie that could have been a classic for kids. Super 8 is a good film. However I feel like it was planning on being the “breath of fresh air” Inception was last summer, which was an amazing film amidst a whole lot of crap we were force fed last summer. Thankfully, Summer 2011 has been a time of some really amazing films we’ve already seen, like Vaughn’s revival of X-Men and Todd Phillips’ wildly successful, wildly hilarious, and just wild The Hangover Part II, with plenty more potential greats on the way (Johnston’s Captain America, Bay’s Transformers, etc.). Basically, instead of being a diamond of normal beauty in a bed of rocks, it’s just a normal-looking diamond in a bed of gorgeous gems. I wish Super 8 had tried a little harder, had been more focused on being a knockout kids’ movie or just the nostalgic sci-fi film it is but with a third act that didn’t deliver on its promises. Super 8 taught me a lot of things; including how blessed we are to have filmmakers like Abrams to succeed Spielburg along with brilliant kid actors that exist outside of the world of Disney. More importantly though it teaches us the wonder of imagination and how wonderfully that can impose itself to the big screen, and that innovative ideas can still trudge through the maze of getting made into film. Had it spent a little more time on the development desk, there could have been a lot more to love here, heck it could have been a BIG stand-out this summer. However Super 8 ends up as a two-act wonder that, thanks to the wonder of those two great acts and some amazing effects, phenomenal characters, and creativity of the purest order, deserves to be seen.