One of the several throughlines in J.J. Abrams’ eagerly-awaited Super 8 involves a plucky group of kids in late-70s small-town Ohio attempting to make a zombie movie. Thanks to a surprising facility with fake blood and monster make-up, they’ve got the kill scenes down; what they need is a story. The budding auteur among them, wide-eyed and heavy-set Charles (Riley Griffiths), has an instinct about how to make it work: give the main character a wife, and insert a scene of the two of them saying goodbye. “I just don’t understand how giving him a wife makes it a story,” says his friend Joe (Joel Courtney). Charles’ answer is stunningly eloquent: “You feel something,” he says. “You don’t want them to die because they love each other.”
Just so. Sadly, that insight is also more or less a diagnosis of what’s wrong with Super 8, which falls far short of the rousing E.T.-style emotional pull that’s transparently Abrams’ goal. What he ends up with instead is an awkward, overstuffed adventure that wears its influences on its sleeve but doesn’t deliver on their promises. It’s kinda funny, and kinda cool, and kinda fun, but in the end you feel — basically — nothing.
Precisely why is a bit hard to pin down, but I suspect the film’s (admirable) ambition is among the culprits. Super 8 is so busy that it drowns itself. Abrams’ screenplay tries to distill everything important about childhood — friendship, loss, passion, imagination, first love — and compress it, PowerBar-style, into what is, just by-the-by, also a monster movie about a military cargo train derailment releasing something sinister into our heroes’ unsuspecting small Ohio town. It’s not every film that can carry so much baggage, and Super 8 isn’t up to the challenge. It buckles under the weight; turns misshapen, unwieldy.
I’m not talking about thematic ambition here so much as storylines. Joe, our 12 year-old protagonist, is mourning the loss of his mother — the opening scenes elegantly convey her death — in an unspecified worksite accident — and its aftermath. He has a tough relationship with his loving but gruff father (Kyle Chandler), the town deputy sheriff who can’t conceive of how he’s going to raise the kid on his own, and proposes, to begin with, that Joe go away to baseball camp for the summer instead of helping Charles finish his movie. The star of Charles’ movie, by the way, is Alice (Elle Fanning), the pretty girl Joe fancies, though Joe’s dad has forbidden their friendship because her dad is a bum who may have had something to do with the aforementioned worksite accident. The kids — Joe, Charles, Alice, and a few others — witness the train crash while filming Charles’ husband-wife goodbye scene. Soon the Air Force is in town, led by the menacing Colonel Nemec (Noah Emmerich), butting heads with the police, including Joe’s dad. Then something starts stealing all of the town’s electrical supplies, causing brown-outs. The school’s biology teacher is arrested and interrogated. Information starts to drip out, causing the town to question whether the Air Force is covering up a Russian invasion. The kids know better — the train crash released something otherworldly into the town. But what?
The movie lurches and flails to account for all this mess. The shifts in tone are jarring and abrupt; it’s jokey and sarcastic one moment, gee-whiz-awed the next, then suddenly a horror film, then a tearjerker. Everything feels a bit malnourished. The relationships among the kids are meant to evoke a wispy Stand by Me sort of nostalgia — “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” — but the characters never get a chance to breathe; the movie’s always tending to one plotline or another. The sci-fi angle doesn’t build any steam until the last forty minutes, and goes nowhere even then; it really does turn out to be Cloverfield meets E.T., and it feels cynical. There are some lovely moments (a climactic confrontation has exactly the sort of emotional energy and commitment the rest of the movie lacks), and some very funny ones, and J.J. Abrams knows how to build momentum within a scene, but the whole experience feels flat, curiously uninteresting despite all of the running around.
Super 8 is being rampantly compared to vintage Spielberg — I’ve done it myself here at least twice. The comparison is both apt, since Abrams clearly has Spielberg on the mind, and revealing. The clearest direct homage here is in the final scene, which is supposed to be stirring and soaring but, at least for me, just didn’t register. Whatever else may be said about Steven Spielberg, the guy knew how to make us “feel something.” J.J. Abrams still has a ways to go.
— Eugene Novikov