How can I find fault in a fun, innocuous piece of nostalgic filmmaking like Super 8? Well, I’ll pad it by saying that I did have a good time watching most of it. But by so obviously paying homage to 80’s adventure flicks and contributing very little imagination of his own, J.J. Abrams has given us a smile and a wishful pang for something more. There exists a long list of Spielberg produced or directed films that offers up a lot of promise and just as much disappointment. These movies have one prominent feature in common: preposterous, sentimental endings that take unearned short-cuts to happy endings. Abrams stays true to the formula.
“But what do you expect from a monster movie starring a bunch of kids?” you might ask. Well, while not strictly “monster movies”, the Harry Potter series managed to establish some sort of believable logic for the plot, despite the magic and children involved. The difference is patience, from both the director and the assumed audience. Would audiences have appreciated an extra twenty minutes of character development, exposition and an extended, more satisfying climax? I would have.
But we’ve seen it all before, and so while a nod to the past can be fun, it can get dull if every event can be foreseen, to the point where the audience could leave the theater halfway through and finish writing the script themselves: Children, estranged from their parents, become friends and discover a strange creature in their small town. The (evil) military shows up, and it’s up to the children (the only ones who “understand” the monster) to save the day. Without much explanation, the parents realize they love their children, the monster only kills questionable authority figures, and the town (and creature) are saved.
The first third to half of the movie is a lot of fun. Just watching the kids plan and make their movies is classic stuff. And there is a moment when the white truck pulls onto the train tracks (I won’t say what happens next), when Abrams captures the essence of movie thrills: a completely unexpected, mysterious event that shatters the night, but from a distance that brings a creepy dread, rather than a visceral shock. That tone of mystery pervades the first part of the story. The innocence of the children is a sharp contrast to the huge events happening around them, and for a while it works, like some sections of The Goonies. But after that, it is evident that Abrams made an excellent copy of an 80’s adventure movie, and that’s about it.
There is quite a lot of potential in the child actors. I won’t be at all surprised if I see the leads (Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning) growing into stars over the next fifteen years.