For many people, Super 8 is one of the most anticipated movies of the year. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, the same man behind 2009’s most exciting film, Star Trek, and produced by none other than cinema legend Steven Spielberg, Super 8 was bound for greatness. But, like most other movies this year, it hits some sour notes along the way. It’s incredibly entertaining, full of heart and whimsy, but when all is said and done, it’s not much different from any other sci-fi creature feature you’ve ever seen.
The film takes place in the 70’s and follows a group of kids as they set out to make their own little movie for an upcoming film festival. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is directing while one of his best friends, Joe (Joel Courtney) does make-up. It’s a zombie movie and they already have their lead and zombie(s) in the form of Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Cary (Ryan Lee). What they need now is a romantic interest, so they employ Joe’s crush, Alice (Elle Fanning) and set out to make their movie. While filming one night on a seemingly abandoned train station platform, an Air Force train passes by, derails and its cargo escapes. The problem is that the cargo is alive and is now wreaking havoc in their small Ohio town.
Super 8 is a filmmaker’s love letter to filmmaking. Because the central story involves a group of kids shooting their own movie, Abrams gives himself an opportunity to mock certain aspects of the filmmaking process. He pokes fun at rewrites, pushy directors, cost cutting and even distracting background extras. Throughout the film, the kids keep shooting, despite the creature running around, and even use the recent destruction as backgrounds for their shots. In a way, Abrams is giving a cinematic hug to film. He loves it and does his best to push that love onto us. When you finally get to see the kids’ final product during the credits, which include the scenes they shot within the scenes of the bigger movie you just finished watching, you’ll realize he succeeded.
Given the marketing of Super 8, which makes it out to be a serious tale, many will find the film to be more charming and funny than they expected. Unfortunately, also due to the marketing, which, like many movies Abrams is involved in, kept the plot details in a shroud of secrets, many will also find themselves disappointed by the time those credits roll around. To put it simply (and to avoid inadvertent spoilers), the set-up is better than the payoff. It begins with a bang (quite literally), setting up a mystery that begs to be solved, but once it is, it’s nearly impossible not to feel underwhelmed. You’ve seen this type of movie before, especially if you’re familiar with Spielberg’s body of work. It’s a shame because the film is so well done, but when a mystery is played up as much as it is in Super 8, the solution should be unique, not ripped from other films. Call it homage if you want; that doesn’t make it any less redundant.
Still, even with that massive problem, the film is endlessly enjoyable thanks to terrific performances from its mostly child cast (some of which have never acted before), Abrams fine eye for detail and his keen understanding of human emotion. You’ll laugh a lot during Super 8, but you might be surprised to find yourself tearing up too. Abrams begins the movie with the death of Joe’s mother and then milks it for the next hour and 45 minutes, but it’s never excessive or manipulative. He handles it delicately and you’ll never feel like you’re crying simply because you’re supposed to.
Abrams nails the comedy and the drama, but in his attempt to hit the emotional trifecta with fear, he fails. Super 8 is not scary, but it tries real hard with a large number of “Boo!” scares, which any filmgoer knows are merely startling (and that’s not the same as scary). It also goes a little overboard with its time period jokes. It’s cute for a while, but making fun of portable audio cassette players is a bit obvious and not particularly inspired.
Super 8 isn’t as frenetic as Star Trek and it’s not as novel as Cloverfield (which Abrams produced), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It exists separately from Abrams’ other cinematic endeavors, though not from other cinematic endeavors in general. Super 8 is a good movie, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s not the mind-blowing spectacle it wants to be and, perhaps pretentiously, thinks it is.
Super 8 receives 3.5/5