Length: 112 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Age Appropriate for: 13+. There are lots of explosion and some violent deaths, but it’s not too bloody, gory or scary for younger teens. The cursing and drug use is similarly tame.
J.J. Abrams taps from the best summer blockbusters to make ‘Super 8,’ but fails to live up to his idol Steven Spielberg with one of this season’s only original flicks.
by Roxana Hadadi
I really thought I would adore “Super 8.” But if I wanted to watch “E.T.,” an episode of “The X-Files” and the series finale of “Lost,” I would have just watched “E.T.,” an episode of “The X-Files” and the series finale of “Lost.” Director J.J. Abrams didn’t have to go through all the trouble to disappoint me so much.
Do I feel like a jerk for not being totally in love with “Super 8,” one of this summer’s few original blockbusters and what was hyped to be the follow-up to last year’s mind-bending “Inception”? Yup, I do. But the euphoric delight I expected to bask in after viewing the film actually turned out to be a half-hearted enjoyment, like walking around in the summertime and eating an ice cream cone and then getting caught in a thunderstorm of epic proportions! Or expecting an ice cream cake for a workplace treat and instead getting the gross grocery-store kind with the too-thick frosting! (As I write this review, it the “real feel” temperature outside is 107 degrees, so please don’t judge my current fascination with deliciously cool ice cream too harshly.)
But the topic at hand is the letdown of “Super 8,” not my personal hardships. A hush-hush production from Abrams, the same man who gave us the much-loved, later-much-maligned TV series “Lost,” the 2009 big-screen reboot of “Star Trek” and the 2008 alien movie “Cloverfield,” “Super 8” was supposed to be this summer’s great cinematic hope. Much like “The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick’s sprawling epic about the creation of the world, “Super 8” was one of the few flicks coming out during the next few months that isn’t a sequel (like “The Hangover Part II” and “Kung Fu Panda 2”) or a comic book adaptation (such as “Thor” and “X-Men: First Class”). It has characters Abrams dreamed up, plot twists he meticulously crafted, and a stamp of approval from producer Steven Spielberg, who basically invented the summer blockbuster with movies like “Jaws,” “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park.”
All of that should be enough to make “Super 8” great. But it isn’t. And you can blame Spielberg for that.
It’s as simple as this: The man is too much of a legend, the originator of too many classic movie moments — innocent children, understanding extraterrestrials, evil bureaucracies — and his shadow is inescapable. And Abrams has developed his own style too, one of shadowy mysteries, guilt-ridden leaders and CGI-heavy action sequences, but in “Super 8” he leans too heavily on his own conventions while also swiping too many of Spielberg’s. In some ways, the film is a loving homage to Spielberg’s innovations; in too many more, it escapes into the prestige of the blockbusters Abrams reveres.
For children and teens, however, “Super 8” will amaze; it’s only viewers old enough to nitpick who will see the undeniable comparisons to Spielberg’s friendly, wrinkly alien who wanted to eat Reese’s Pieces before phoning home and the homicidal, human-hating baddies Abrams invented for “Cloverfield.” Younger viewers, though, should be enthralled by everything “Super 8” does right: Sympathetic character development, wonderful dialogue, heroically self-sacrificing good guys, thrilling crashes and explosions. The PG-13 rating is accurate, too — there is an intense train crash scene and a good amount of violence, but it’s not extraneously gory or bloody, except for the campy nature of the characters’ DIY zombie film. There’s also cursing, drug use and a youth romance. Teens older than 13 should be fine.
“Super 8,” inspired by Abrams’ own experiences making films as a teen, takes us back to 1979, to the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio. It’s a blue-collar, working-class place, where young teen Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) still mourns the death of his mother four months before. She died in an accident at the local steel factory; Joe’s father, Deputy Sheriff Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler), has a burning rage for local alcoholic Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard), whom he blames for the tragic incident. Joe focuses too much on his grief and on blaming Louis to really see Jack, a sci-fi-obsessed kid who makes models and action figures and who promises his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) that he’ll help him with his movie, a zombie flick Charles is making for a local film festival.
Jack wants Joe to be more normal, play more sports and go to summer camp, so Jack can have more time alone in the house to cry about his wife. Joe yearns for his mother, who understood his creativity and imagination; he finds affection for a living, breathing girl, however, in the beautiful Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning). At first defensive and rebellious, Alice astounds Joe and Charles with a gripping performance in their little film, one so affecting that it makes their friend Martin (Gabriel Basso) cry. At that moment, all of the boys — Joe, Charles, Martin, Carey (Ryan Lee) and Preston (Zach Mills) — all seem to fall a little bit in love with her, this glowing blonde who has snuck out to spend time with them. All is happy, all is bright, all is ‘70s sun-drenched euphoria.
Until the train crash. The train crash changes everything, uniting the teens in their shared horror and fascination. As the military, led by the hard and cold Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich), descends upon the town, hysteria sets in. First car engines and microwaves go missing, then family pets, then people. What’s happening could be an invasion, but of what kind? At a town meeting, one frenzied woman guesses it’s the Russians. The kids, and Jack, guess at something more — but whether you’ll be astounded by what Abrams shows us or bored depends on your age and your patience. The performances from Courtney, Chandler, Griffiths and Fanning (building on the fragile beauty she exhibited in last year’s “Somewhere”) are all impressive, but Abrams’s story lacks the depth and finesse necessary to make “Super 8” more than just a mash-up of his favorite things.
For teens, “Super 8” is a satisfactory indication of what good movies can be when they’re not adapted from something else. But parents will know “Super 8” is in fact just a twist on everything Spielberg did well all those years ago — it’s enjoyable, but it’s not revolutionary.