Super 8 (2011)
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Premise: A group of preteens witness a train wreck on the outskirts of their small town and soon thereafter unexplained phenomena occur around the community.
What Works: For over a decade, being metatextual has been deemed hip, as filmmakers like Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, and Eli Roth have made films almost entirely constituted of references to the movies of the past. The longstanding problem with this style of filmmaking is that it often results in movies that are patchworks of images from other sources with little understanding of what those images mean or regard for the context in which they originally appeared. This trend has also had a cannibalizing effect on popular culture as references have been used as a substitute for creating new stories, ideas, or styles. Super 8 is a similar attempt by writer and director J.J. Abrams to pay tribute to the motion pictures that have influenced him but Abrams manages to acknowledge his science fiction roots while telling his own story. The most obvious inspiration for Super 8 comes from the work of Steven Spielberg, who is credited as an executive producer, and Super 8 includes allusions to films like E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Goonies. Super 8 also makes reference to movies like Joe Dante’s Explorers, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Although it is packed with allusions, the film presents most of them in the course of the storytelling and so the nods never become overwhelming or distracting in the way they did in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns or Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Super 8 is able to be successful mainly because of its mystery and its commitment to its preteen characters. The filmmakers hold off on revealing the ultimate truth of the phenomena and tease the audience with clues, letting the secret behind the train crash gradually reveal itself. Super 8 is led by characters who are distinct and authentic and it tells the story through their point of view, giving the film a preteen sensibility in its sense of wonder and scale but also in its straightforward sense of courage and camaraderie. The young actors of Super 8 do a great job, especially Joel Courtney as the lead character and Elle Fanning as his crush. Both Courtney and Fanning manage a level of subtlety in their performances that many actors of any age struggle with and the script ties them together beyond boy-girl attraction with some smart backstory that gives the film a little more dramatic weight.
What Doesn’t: The plotting of Super 8 is far from airtight, especially in the conclusion. This has been a consistent issue for Abrams in Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek, and Lost and he makes similar missteps in Super 8 as characters make big leaps in reasoning and arrive at locations when it is most convenient for the story. The film has a subplot between the fathers of Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning’s characters and this is not resolved in a satisfactory or even credible way. Super 8 also suffers from an excess of camera movement, particularly in expository sequences. Abrams seems determined to maintain the sense of speed and movement through the dialogue scenes but there are a number of panning and tracking shots that move too fast and cause distortion in the image.
Bottom Line: Super 8 is a fun picture in the matinee tradition. The deliberate acknowledgement of Abrams’ sci-fi inspirations adds a level of fan boy appreciation but does not distract from the story or the characters. This is not a classic like the films it emulates, but Super 8 is well made and a fine adventure film.
Episode: #344 (June 19, 2011)