The movie that Super 8 most obviously evokes is Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – the idea of an alien creature coming into the lives of a group of young kids, and the ways in which the subsequent encounter alters their relationships. Considering that Spielberg is credited as producer, and the movie is directed by his much spoken about protégé, J.J. Abrams, this is not unexpected. What is surprising though, are the ways in which Super 8 manages to stand out on its own, away from the towering shadow of one of the greatest works of a master director.
What helps is that it is a homage about homage. The central group of child characters in Super 8are obsessed with the magic of the movies: there is the scene-scouting director (this is gold!), the obsessed-with-explosives SFX man, the powerful young actress, the queasy leading man, and our make-up artist protagonist. There is a wonderful moment where a film projector involuntarily interrupts an already tender scene between two characters, and the resultant projection elevates it to another level. The best scenes in this movie simply involve the kids playing off against each other, working up to creating an award-winning zombie movie with heart. Abrams is successful in supplying this movie with that very heart, and the fantastic first half gives us a lot to play with.
The movie our young filmmakers are trying to create leads them to witness a massive train crash – where the train’s mysterious cargo escapes. Before they know it, the U.S. military is on the case, and strange occurrences start happening in the town. The dogs are missing, electronics have vanished, and soon people start following suit. There is a tremendous amount of tension built up with these early sequences, as we are left guessing about the nature of this creature.
The problem is, nothing can quite match up to what the imagination creates, and Abrams’ final revelation of the “monster” is somewhat underwhelming. Where the first half builds itself on charming character-play and thudding suspense, the second half veers into full-blown spectacle – and suffers as a result. The spectacle itself is well done, and the action sequences thrilling, but there is a somewhat discomfiting genre switch that is a bit hard to digest.
That said, Super 8 still works. This is, thanks to, in no small part, the excellent performances Abrams extracts from his young cast. Recall if you will, that E.T. featured a young Drew Barrymore; this movie has Dakota Fanning’s younger sister Elle Fanning, and in a scene that moves the characters within the movie to tears, she begins to steal the film. Our protagonist has a milder approach to his character that still remains quite endearing. Kyle Chandler as the father is not quite the sympathetic presence he was in Friday Night Lights, but I think he is partly let down by a poorly written character.
A final word on the movie-within-the-movie. Make sure you stay back for the credits; we get to watch the full version of the movie our young filmmakers have been working on. It is charming, faux-scary, and a pure blast of fun. Kind of like Super 8 itself, really.
(as published on mylaw.net)