by HELEN GEIB
Super 8 is writer-director J.J. Abrams’ homage to American science fiction and horror cinema of the 1970s and ’80s. It is determinedly formulaic, although on that score at least, the conscious nostalgia deflects most criticism.
The fast-paced story unfolds in a Midwestern small town in 1979, a setting appropriate to the tribute film project and also conveniently pre-cell phone. The heroes and heroine are a precocious band of aspiring filmmakers. They are shooting a scene in their Super 8 short film at an old train depot outside town when they witness a terrifying freight train crash. It was a military train and the military wants its mysterious cargo back. One of the boys, Joe (Joel Courtney), happens to be the son of the deputy (Kyle Chandler) who takes command of the local force when the sheriff becomes the first person to go missing. Joe has a crush on the movie’s new leading lady, Alice (Elle Fanning), but his and Alice’s emotionally distant fathers have forbidden them from seeing each other.
That this is not an exhaustive summary shows just how many balls are in the air. Abrams is an adept juggler and Super 8 entertains even if some of the moving parts do hit the ground hard in the end.
Super 8 is a monster movie yet draws heavily on E.T. Its monster is a weird hybrid of Spielberg’s family-friendly visitor from another world and the decidedly un-family friendly Alien and Predator. It has super intelligence, super strength, super-advanced technology, and psychic powers but is unable to call home and hates humans because of decades of torture/lab specimen experiments by military scientists, thus making it the government’s fault that it eats people. Both the monster and its conspiracy theory trappings (the military head honcho lacks only a mustache to complete the picture of villainy) are pieced together from too many, too often incompatible cinematic reference points.
The childrens’ adventure and family reconciliation storylines are coherent and compatible. However, they fit uneasily with the monster movie storyline. The mixture finally sinks under the weight of the logical and tonal inconsistencies.
The film is on firmer ground when it sticks closer to earth. Super 8 offers a credible picture of small town community life and a fine period setting production design. Courtney and Fanning charm effortlessly and carry off the heavy emotional scenes. Abrams adroitly develops parallels between Joe and his dad, showing them both to be natural leaders and men of action, that nicely pave the road to their climactic emotional reunion. The gang’s banter may be too obviously scripted at times, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny.
There are a lot of laughs in fact, many of the best ones courtesy of the behind-the-scenes look at the filming of the kids’ hardboiled detective zombie movie. If you go, do not jump up when the screen fades to black. The short film plays in its entirety over the end credits, and it is very, very much worth staying for.
2 1/2 stars
Possibly Related Posts: (Commentary Track generated)
Abrams won a lot of new fans with Star Trek (2009).