Last week I reviewed Super 8 in a fairly non-spoiler way, but now that the film has been released I wanted to revisit it and pick apart the things that make the movie fall to pieces in the third act. This is, obviously, a completely spoiler-filled review.
In the final moments of Super 8 young Joe Lamb lets go of his dead mother’s locket, which flies out of his hand and completes the final piece of the alien’s spaceship, which rises off from Earth in a lens-flaring flame as the local townsfolk watch in awe. This is an amazing, touching ending… for a movie that isn’t Super 8.
My best guess is that JJ Abrams had this ending in mind when he was writing the movie, but for some reason he never found a way to organically make it work in the context of the previous 100 or so minutes. Conceptually that ending is beautiful, a moment of catharsis for Joe Lamb as well as a wonderful way of sending a reminder of himself off with the alien as he returns home… but Joe Lamb doesn’t need that catharsis. And I’m not entirely sure why I should be rooting for a crazed man-eating alien to be getting away at the end. Also, I don’t know why Joe Lamb gives the first shit about the alien, since it was only minutes ago trying to eat him and his friends.
There’s a major script problem in Super 8 and it comes from Abrams being completely unable to knit together his two stories. One story is about kids making a movie and coming of age, while the other is about a monster quietly rampaging through a small town. The way to connect these films feels obvious, especially since the movie makes a really big deal about the monster having a tactile psychic bond - when it touches you it shares all of its memories with you, and vice versa. Obviously in act two the kids will be menaced by the monster and when it touches them it will come to understand them, and they’ll understand that he’s not so bad, but rather an abused guy trying to get home.
Except that never happens. By not bringing the monster and the kids together until the very end, Abrams throws off the balance of his whole movie. Now, I’m not saying he had to bring the kids and the monster together in real understanding to make a good movie, but he did have to bring them together to justify the ending of the movie he made.
But there’s very little justified in the second half of Super 8. The title, in fact, is arbitrary. Yes, the kids are shooting a movie on Super 8, and yes they do capture the monster on Super 8 film… but that’s not actually a plot point of any value. By the time they develop the film and show it to the adults it doesn’t really matter what’s on the footage.
There are a ton of problems with the script - why do most of the kids not have payoffs to their stories, and why are they essentially shuffled out of the movie in the final scenes, without really impacting anything? - but what kills Super 8 in the end is the mishandling of the Joe Lamb situation. Joe’s mother has died, and his father deals by being distant. He doesn’t understand Joe, or what Joe’s dreams are. He doesn’t respect Joe’s dreams and tries to impose his own feelings on the boy, insisting he go to baseball camp when he wants to stay home and make monster movies. This is a set up for an interesting emotional climax, but not the one Abrams gives us.
At the end of the movie Joe is forced to let go of the locket his mother wore; we learn earlier in the film that his father gave it to her the day he was born, and throughout the film he has made sure to keep it. This is a touching detail, and it’s natural. His mother died six months before, and it’s comforting for him to hold the locket close. We see that he’s been watching some home movie footage of he and his mother when he was a baby, which is also understandable and touching. But to be honest, Joe Lamb’s doing okay. He’s not overly obsessed with his recently dead mom, and he’s moving on in his life. He’s out with his friends making movies, he’s falling in love with Alice, the prettiest girl at school and he’s even standing up to his dad. Joe Lamb is an incredibly adjusted character.
Yet we’re supposed to parallel Joe with the monster. Upon crash landing on Earth, the monster was picked up the government and poked, prodded and tortured. He’s angry. He’s been mistreated. He wants to get home and will not let anything stand in his way. His story is nothing at all like Joe’s. When Joe and the monster finally have their moment - right at the end, far too late for it to register in a real emotional way - Joe gives the beast a platitude ‘sometimes bad things happen.’
But that isn’t the point of the monster’s story! Joe’s mom is killed when Alice’s drunken dad doesn’t come to work and she takes his shift. A bad thing happened, but there was no malice or cruelty involved. Being tortured doesn’t fall under the ‘bad things happen’ heading, it falls under the ‘man, people suck’ heading. It’s bizarre to see the movie attempt to jam these two stories together when they’re simply not compatible.
It’s doubly bizarre when you realize that there IS a compatible storyline in the movie. Alice, the pretty girl who gets into a burgeoning relationship with Joe, comes from a borderline abusive home life. Her father is a drunk and a jerk, and his relationship with her isn’t founded on love but on fear. If Joe’s dad is distant, her dad is too close. The alien snatches her up, which means they share a psychic bond, but the movie never parallels their definitely parallel stories. Is it because Abrams envisions this as a boy movie? All that Alice does in the finale is be captured and force Joe to be ‘heroic,’ but it makes more sense within the world and rules and the story defined by the movie for Alice to be the character to make the connection with the monster. Too bad she’s a girl, huh?
Most of this is moot anyway, since Abrams decides to ape Jaws and keep the alien hidden for most of the running time. We never get to build a relationship with the creature ourselves, or to understand it much at all. We do see it in full at the end, but Abrams has opted to make his alien truly alien, yet another monster that looks like a crab crossed with a plucked chicken. It’s not a design that allows us to understand the creature in any way. And when he does show us the alien in full at the end, we see it eating a human leg. This behavior, combined with its unpleasant appearance, makes it hard for us to feel empathy for the beast.
It’s important to keep in mind that plenty of rampaging cinematic monsters have made us feel bad for them. King Kong is the granddaddy of the whole genre, with the Universal Monsters really defining how it works. And here’s how it works: the rampaging beast has to die. It’s okay to ask us to feel bad for it - the beast was pushed too far, it was unnatural to have it in our cities, it never asked to be created, etc - but in the end the creature has to die. The reason is simple: even though we can understand why the beast is rampaging, it’s still killing innocents. In Super 8 the alien kills the military men who had been imprisoning it, which is actually okay. It can get that revenge and still live… but the monster also eats the innocent sheriff and a housewife and whoever owned that leg. This makes the ending where the creature takes off in a beautiful blue light sort of weird.
And so we have this ending, where a kid who has no severe emotional problems about his dead mom needs to give up a fairly unobtrusive, acceptable memento of her so that an alien, who he has not really been engaging with and who has slaughtered completely innocent people, can escape the Earth. As if to make the awful ridiculousness of this scenario more explicit, JJ Abrams breaks the moment of characters looking at the sky in awe by dropping a huge amount of metal on their heads, a rotten decision that undercuts the effect he’s going for.
But I guess the ending could have meant something if the father and child reunions had meant something. They don’t. Joe’s dad was imprisoned by the Air Force not for helping his son or being there for his son, but because he was trying to protect the town. Joe’s dad breaks out of that prison not because he’s concerned about his son but because he’s continuing to try and get to the bottom of what’s happening in his town. There’s no actual moment where the dad switches over from being the defender of the town to really simply caring about - or even UNDERSTANDING Joe. There’s no moment where Joe’s dreams become clearer to him, and that’s really because the coming of age movie has, by this point, been completely abandoned in favor of a loud, stupid alien movie.
Joe’s dad and Alice’s dad come to an understanding of some sort while looking for their kids, but it feels arbitrary. Why is it just these two? The other kids are also out there, missing, and one of them has a broken leg. Not that his mother would know this, but why aren’t the parents of all the kids getting involved in the hunt (hint: for the same reason all the kids just slip out of the movie - Abrams has no idea what to do with them). And when Joe’s dad shows up - way too late, really - and says that he’s there for his son, there’s nothing to it. He’s there for his town, and happens to find the son along the way.
But if that climax is hollow, how about the facile stupidity of the reunion of Alice and her drunk asshole dad? That both these reunions happen at once doesn’t make them more impactful, it only highlights how wildly unmotivated they are. To be honest, Alice’s dad - who saw his daughter snatched by the alien - is more motivated than Joe’s, except that all he does is lie in a cot at the evacuation center and moan. He’s a pathetic man who doesn’t take any action until Joe’s dad rouses him, for reasons that are completely unclear and based simply on the need to get the two men in a car together to have ‘a talk.’
I understand that people have an emotional reaction to the final scenes of the movie, but what they’re reacting to is the score and the angle of the shots and the beauty of the ship taking off and not anything inherent in the characters or the story. The end of Super 8 would work if just clipped out and used to sell flowers or something; technically it’s well made, but narratively it’s disastrously bad and lazy. That, more or less, sums up the entire film.