Review by: Coop Cooper
Taking place in the late 70’s in a small Ohio town, Joe (Joel Courtney) immerses himself in making amateur horror movies with nerdy teen friends, mere months after a tragic accident took the life of his mother. He becomes overjoyed when his director friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), talks the town beauty, Alice (Elle Fanning), into starring in their project. While filming a climatic scene next to a train station, Joe and the crew witness a massive train wreck and accidentally film a strange creature escaping from the wreckage. The military swoops in to suppress the event as the creature wreaks havoc on the town. When Alice goes missing, Joe and his misfit friends attempt to uncover the truth about the alien in order to save her.
The most positive thing I can say about “Super 8” is how well it captures the style of those films from 30 years ago. Foul-mouthed kids? Check. Supernatural forces? Check. Sweeping music designed to fill the audience with wonder? Check. Grandiose action scenes? Check. Upbeat resolution? Check and mate. It takes elements from “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jaws” and so many others, you’ll feel waves of nostalgia during many of the key moments, especially in the first half. For this reason alone, I can almost recommend the film.
You could mistake “Super 8” for a film made during that time period if it wasn’t for one telling detail… Computer generated imagery (CGI). Practically every large special effect, including the alien itself, is created inside of a computer and a good bit of it (especially the alien) looks pretty darn lame and phony when in action. The studio could have at least sprung for an animatronic puppet to play the alien in the close-up scenes. That would’ve looked more retro and genuine than boring computer effects harkening from late-90’s films like “Men in Black.” I’m sure this decision saved the production money but as a fan of those epic blockbusters from my childhood, it really let me down.
I didn’t have any particular qualms with the acting. Films of this type often require actors to ham it up throughout most of the film. The cast handles the cornball antics well enough. Elle Fanning proves to be the shining exception. In fact, the character she plays is that of a young teen who suddenly discovers she has a superior acting talent. Of course this required a high-caliber actress to pull this off, but in the process she makes the rest of the cast look like amateurs.
Despite the nostalgia and Fanning’s allure, the film falls horribly short on script and story development. The fact this film went from pitched concept to finished film in nearly a year made me suspect producer Steven Spielberg and director J.J. Abrams rushed it through production too quickly. Filmmakers tend to take their time when in production and post, but when it comes to skillfully crafting an effective story, it amazes me how so many recklessly speed through the process. Abrams (much like Steven Spielberg himself) is a known offender of this cinematic transgression and “Super 8” is his most sloppily-written story to date.
Full of plot holes and loose threads, the film sets up well in the first half, but struggles to pay it all off by the end. The alien and it’s motivations aren’t very compelling. You never get a good look at it but I wasn’t blown away by its design which was meant to be scary but not TOO scary because it may or may not be a villain. The super 8mm film shot by the boys is touted as a major plot point in the story – heck it’s the title of the film – but it ends up being entirely inconsequential. The subplot with the two fathers grieving over the same tragedy gets glossed over and becomes irrelevant by the conclusion. Even Joe, the main character doesn’t learn much by the end. We never see him too unhappy or tortured by the death of his mother so his on-the-nose resolution carries little emotional weight.
The worst mistake was making Joe’s nerdy group of filmmaker friends completely unlikable. There’s the bossy chunky kid, the buck-toothed fire freak, the vomit-prone neurotic… I cringed at every one of their meaningless exclamations and observations. They added nothing to the story but bickering, screaming and repeating the phrase “Oh my God!” because the writer/director Abrams couldn’t bother to give them anything more interesting to say. I understand he was trying to emulate sass-mouthed kids similar to classic 80’s characters like “The Goonies” but he completely blew it. “Chunk” had more soul in his fat little finger than all of these little punks combined.
The best thing “Super 8” managed to accomplish is resurrect a type of cinema that was nearly dead… the epic PG/PG-13 film. I hope the film inspires more movies of this type. Likewise, I hope filmmakers learn from the mistakes of “Super 8” and favor effective storytelling over rushed plots and overrated CGI effects.
“Super 8” rating: 2 ½ out of 5 stars