What is Super 8? Is it a throw-back kid driven adventure story? Is it a coming of age film with endearing characters? Is it an oddly familiar sci-fi story from two master storytellers re-branded for a new generation? Well it’s all of it and more but in short Super 8 is the kind of movie that reaffirms why people go the movies. In this mysterious, fun and fast moving film J.J. Abrams writes a love letter to Steven Spielberg in a way that will delight fans of all genres and age groups. However while I found it tough to stay away from the hype I have to say this didn’t quite live up to all of it. Not that it didn’t impress, there were just some elements that could have been more fulfilling.
What J.J.’s story did with Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield (featuring an alien that seemed to have similar physical traits) he again does here while channeling mentor/producer Steven Spielberg’s patented knack for turning an unsuspecting suburban American town on its head. Super 8 is saturated in nostalgia and even before it actually starts we’re taken way back with the Amblin logo splayed out on the big screen; it’s certainly a precursor to quality filmmaking and has sorely been missed. Beginning with a brief character set up and followed up with slow reveals this feels like it was a movie Steven Spielberg forgot he made and is now sharing it with us. I can’t tell you how good it felt to get that warmth from a theater again.
But this is J.J.’s film and set up in typical J.J. Abrams fashion this wonderfully playful and layered story (replete with a red herring or two) follows a tight knit group of kids who while filming a zombie movie, happened upon a government cover-up that just had its lid blown off. The immediate arrival of the United States Air Force yields a very unconvincing explanation of what’s going on just outside their town of Lillian. So it’s up to the kids to find out the answers and take us through the story.
Above all other elements, it’s the kids, both as actors and their characters, bring a real depth to Super 8 and really make the movie. Not only are they a dynamic combination of cute, funny and crass at times, their chemistry alone sells the performances. What feels less like a scripted movie, the kids’ scenes play out like they were allowed to make up with their own dialog. They talk like normal kids and get away with the types of phrases (and curses) we all used when out of earshot of our parents. They also show their vulnerability and inexperience as they, dealing with things out of their control, stumbling through adversity exactly how kids would. Further in some more serious sequences they embody the innocence and insecurities in a truly genuie manner making them all the more endearing, and there’s even a hints of a love interest which further fleshes out this well rounded story.
While I could go on and on about the kids (it is their movie after all) the acting as whole, despite this being a sci-fi story, infinitely adds to the realism. But that only goes so far as they are universal elements in the film but the story itself isn’t universal. It’s nostalgia is tangible yet at the same time distant. What I mean by that is that as the “look” of Super 8 takes you back and adds to the wonderment of Abrams’ story (yes, lens flares and all) maybe its just me but if you did the same exact story set in modern times I bet that you’d loose much of the allure, mystique and the characters might just not seem as heartfelt or appealing. Things like all the dated technology bits as neinh the “newest and best” go over well and are nice touches helping ground Super 8 to that era and you just can’t see the fun of it working in any other way.
All in all, it’s a fun ride that is paced very well. Super 8 does seem cherry picked from a dizzying number of 80s films that no matter which titles you name you probably wouldn’t be wrong. While it may seem overly ripped-off Super 8 is not a knock-off. It simply does a good job paying loving homages to the films we grew up with and that should really make you feel special watching this. Cloaked in slow reveals and never allowing a full view of what’s turning Lillian upside down the pay off and final act isn’t as satisfying as intended (for me at least). But rest assured, there’s tremendous heart and over 90% of the film is handled expertly as the degree of depth and wonder in Super 8 is compounded in a vibrant manner from scene to scene.
There certainly was a lot to love in this nostalgic adventure yet all those parts just don’t add up to create a film to love. Super 8 works as a two pronged attack; the kids and their adventure/monster story but also there’s the deeper and more unsung (but less fulfilling) story of a boy reconnecting with his father after the mother’s tragic death. For all its merits and the momentum of the story, Super 8’s ending is wrapped up too quickly and for me it was rather unfulfilling. Maybe it was meant to be more metaphorical or symbolic I don’t know but it felt incomplete as it lacked was a proper understanding other than just wrapping up it all up. Kind of like expecting one more turn on a roller coaster only to find you’ve come to the end of the ride.
I guess the same could be said about E.T., Poltergeist and the other films ending with little fanfare. But while Spielberg was only the producer here I expected more from J.J. after being blown away by the wild ride that was Star Trek…then again I remember how LOST ended so maybe my standards are too high and J.J. is well known for never revealing everything. Still, I really liked it but I’m sad because I wanted to love it.