Should JJ Abrams ever get his hands on an actual good script, he’ll be unstoppable. The Mission: Impossible III script was sad joke of a thing, but he made a serviceable, if TV-level film out of it. The Star Trek script was Karen Carpenter thin, but Abrams managed to turn it into a sprightly, invigorating pop adventure film. And now, Super 8.
The previous two scripts were by other people, but Super 8 is all JJ. And while he works his usual directorial magic on it - the casting is wonderful, the shots are often beautifully composed - it’s just not enough. In the end this is a script that Abrams cannot overcome, and it drags him down until by the end of the film scenes that are supposed to be emotional climaxes are just hollow, empty spectacle.
There’s a lot wrong with the script for Super 8 - it is, frankly, a complete goddamn mess - but its cardinal sin to me is that it has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it a coming of age story? A nostalgia piece? An alien rampage film? A misunderstood alien film? Some combination of these? It never decides, and so what could have been a really wonderful coming of age story gets swamped with an utterly pointless alien rampage movie that takes a hard left turn and smashes directly into a misunderstood alien movie. Laying bleeding in the wreckage is a half-assed nostalgia piece, the sort where a kid uses the old fashioned slang ‘mint’ six times in a row in one segment and never again.
I will endeavor to make this as spoiler-free as possible, but despite the film’s campaign of secrecy there’s not much to spoil in this movie. Super 8 is more or less what you think it is, unless you think it’s a movie where kids and aliens will be involved with each other in any meaningful way.
Set for no discernible reason in 1979, Super 8 is about a group of kids making a zombie movie. The lead kid, played by Joel Courtney and looking like a de-aged Patrick Fugit, has recently lost his mom in an industrial accident. This kid - Joe Lamb - is the son of the deputy of their small town (played by Kyle Chandler. The deputy, that is, not the town), a man who doesn’t understand why his son wants to spend so much time building models and applying monster make-up instead of playing sports. The other kids are a ragtag bunch of semi-stereotypes who wouldn’t be out of place in a Stephen King novel (and I mean that in a complimentary way): the fat kid who is the director of the zombie film, the pyro kid who does explosions, the actor kid who throws up whenever he gets stressed and then another kid with minimal defining characteristics. He might be Jewish or Italian, something ethnic.
Their zombie movie takes on a whole new level when the fat kid convinces the most beautiful girl in school, played by Elle Fanning, to co-star. Besides leaving the boys sort of breathless, there’s a further complication brought on by Alice - her dad, a hard-drinking longhair played by Ron Eldard - was, in a really soft-edged and roundabout way, responsible for Joe’s mom’s death.
This sounds like a movie I’d like to see. There could be an interesting exploration of how a loss of innocence can also mean the gain of something greater - empathy, forgiveness, understanding. Abrams’ films are always wonderfully cast, and Super 8 is no exception. These child actors are all lovely, and they have real personality. Fanning, for the record, is a monster, just a completely next level kind of young actress, outshining even all the adults in the movie. But all of these kids are good to great, and watching them together - even in scenes where Abrams does heavy handed ET-style conversational cacophony (and fails miserably) - is fun and has sparks not unlike watching the crew of the USS Enterprise doing their thing.
But that movie I’d like to see isn’t the movie Abrams made. Instead of being a touching examination of anything human, Super 8 is a movie where, while the kids are filming a scene at a railway station a train is derailed by a head on collision with a pickup truck… and so begins what seems like a six minute long series of deafening explosions, flipping train cars, screeching metal and screaming kids. This is the 9/11 of train derailments, an apocalypse off rails. The kids run alongside fireballs and molten debris, all blaring with obnoxious loudness. In that chaos something escapes from one of the train cars. Something that is accidentally caught on the kids’ Super 8 film.
But don’t worry about that, since it’s essentially never important. Instead the majority of the rest of the film is parallel narratives, as the Air Force comes to town to find what escaped, the beast that escaped begins wreaking havoc, and the kids use the madness in their town as extended production value for their zombie movie.
I was wondering if the separate but equal stories was the point; maybe Abrams wanted to tell a story about kids living on the edges of something big. There’s something ‘now’ to that idea, a real post 9/11 feeling about kids living their child lives while big, crazy events happen around them. These big changes in the world could be metaphors for the big changes in these kid’s personal lives. That isn’t what Abrams is doing, though - he keeps dragging the kids directly into the center of the alien movie, again and again. All this does is derail the coming of age story and in the last half of Super 8 the group of kids fall away from the film, getting sidelined because Abrams seemingly doesn’t know what to do with them. Joe Lamb continues on, heading directly into an emotional payoff that is disconnected from his actual character arc, that has no grounding in the text of the film and that is, frankly, lame as hell.
Lame as hell might be how I would describe much of the third act of the film. There’s a literally unmotivated military attack - the monster for some reason makes some machines go nuts - and there’s a monster’s lair sequence that made me think of Tobe Hooper’s Invaders From Mars, never a good point of comparison. There are explosions and shouts and plenty of the alien, who can best be described as Son of Cloverfield. What there are not are intriguing character beats that follow on the previous two acts, a story that feels like it has a propulsive throughline or a central creature that is worth a damn.
I didn’t need Super 8 to be ET. I needed Super 8 to have a creature that looked interesting and that had a personality of some sort. The film does not deliver that. Quick, sketch the monster from Cloverfield. You’ll have the same problem with Super 8’s unnamed beast. There’s a reason certain creatures are classics - they have definitive, easy to understand shapes, as well as personalities. You can not only draw Godzilla, you can play him in the school yard. The kids making the zombie film in Super 8 would understand this, but Abrams doesn’t. His film opts for that modern creature design which is ostensibly based on real world biology but seems predicated on making life easier for the wizards at ILM. It’s the post-Star Wars Prequels design where everything looks sort of like the Rancor Monster, just with different arrays of appendages. It sucks.
It’s this alien that’s the real villain of Super 8 - not Super 8 the story, but Super 8 as a summer movie entertainment product. Shoved into the film for no reason, it distracts from a nice story well told, and it adds nothing of its own. Abrams spends Super 8 homaging Steven Spielberg hard enough to give the guy a friction burn, and the film he homages with the alien is Jaws, keeping the creature essentially out of sight for most of the film. Why? Little suspense is generated, and instead Abrams distances us from the creature, who we’re supposed to feel empathy for later. Maybe. Again, Super 8 doesn’t know if it’s an alien rampage movie or a misunderstood monster film, and it tries to play the ending both ways.
The lens flares are back, and this time they’re so prominent that they feel like an in-joke more than a stylistic tic. Super 8 looks as if someone on cinematographer Larry Fong’s lighting crew was disgruntled and aimed EVERY light into the camera on EVERY shot. Yes, I know that JJ didn’t invent the lens flare, but he may be the most serious over-user of it. At one point it seemed like the moon was giving a lens flare. Lens flare needs to be motivated emotionally and contextually; while it may have been overdone, the lens flare in Star Trek was all about the bright and shining future. In Super 8 it’s about… bright and shining nostalgia? Lights flare into lenses with impunity, without regard to the tone of a scene. lf the lens flares are meant to represent nostalgia, then Abrams expects us to be nostalgic about borderline child abuse, for one thing.
What the lens flares are meant to represent is ‘style.’ Abrams spends so much of the film aping Spielberg’s style - aping it well, to be fair - that the omnipresent (occasionally seemingly unsourced) lens flares come across as the man trying to sign his work. But Spielberg is more than bright lights and people looking offscreen in wonder - there’s an inherent understanding of our dreams and vulnerabilities at play in his films. Spielberg’s greatest films aren’t just well made, they’re beautifully told, and the reason hardcore cynics hate his films is because he’s so good at getting through an audience’s defenses. This is what Abrams is missing, the aspect of Spielberg he’s unable to homage for whatever reason, whether it be that he doesn’t understand it or that it isn’t in him.
There are more problems - I haven’t even touched on the rushed, breathless nature of the editing - but I already feel like I’m beating up on the movie. It isn’t that Super 8 is bad, it’s that it’s not really good. And it should have been good. There’s no excuse for it to be not good. Abrams’ talent as a director is there on every frame of the film. I don’t think Super 8 is visually perfect, but it is often beautiful and nicely put together. Abrams knows how to work with actors and get great, human performances out of them. But these elements need a frame upon which to hang, and Super 8’s script does not give that frame.
Super 8 replaces awe with loud spectacle and abandons its own heart to fit in one of modern cinema’s least interesting aliens. This is a film whose script should never have been filmed, a script whose structural problems are so obvious and huge that it takes a Star Trek sized hit to explain how they ended up on screen. When Super 8 is released I’ll return to this subject and write about the major problems the film suffers in the second and especially third acts, but for now just know that Super 8 is a movie that does not, in the end, fully work on any level except for cheap nostalgia porn.