Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and our current movie generation is addicted to it. Nostalgia is why the movies in our future have names like Battleship, Candyland, Asteroids, Smurfs, and Transformers 3. Nostalgia is why very little makes it past the big budget bean-counters today unless it can be tied to a “brand” that comes pre-sold and pre-digested.
Super 8 is billed as an original, non-sequel science fiction film, but it still has a brand—the Amblin brand, after the style of movies it apes. Under Steven Spielberg’s watch, Amblin Entertainment produced some of the most distinctive films of the 80s and 90s, and it’s specifically this flavor that Super 8 conjures up. Super 8 wants to feel like some lost Amblin film from 1982, and for the most part, director JJ Abrams pulls it off.
Super 8 is part-Goonies, part-ET, and a tiny part-Cloverfield. That’d be the Abrams touch, I imagine. The story is full of foul-mouthed kids riding bikes through the suburbs, loud dinner-table conversations, gruff soldiers, and a mysterious creature that nobody understands.
Young Joel Courtney stars as Joe, the makeup artist for a batch of kids filming a horror movie in small town Ohio. His dad (Kyle Chandler)—a suddenly single father after a workplace accident took his wife—doesn’t approve of Joe’s interests, but grits his teeth and tries to abide. As the kids film a scene at the local train stop, they witness (and shoot) a devastating train accident, which turns out to be the catalyst for a lot of strange events. Animals run away, people disappear, and metal starts flying around on its own. As you likely guessed, the train wasn’t carrying coal.
When you think about it, Super 8 is a ballsy move for Abrams. He’s long been anointed “the next Spielberg,” but it takes a special kind of chutzpah to embrace that title and say, yeah, that’s me. For most of its running time, Super 8 so deftly blends the small-town flavor and big-idea sparkle of a Spielberg film, I wondered if Spielberg himself had snuck onto the set and told Abrams to go take a Tobe Hooper break. Unfortunately, when Abrams absorbed Spielberg’s power, Rogue-like, he also absorbed Spielberg’s third-act jitters. Spielberg hasn’t filmed a completely satisfying ending in twenty years, and sure enough, after Abrams spins so many plates so deftly for 90 minutes, as Super 8 approaches its finale, they all come crashing down.
It starts slowly at first. The coincidences pile up a little too high. Credibility stretches a little too tight. How many projectiles can those kids miraculously miss? How did the army swoop in and arrest four people hiding in the bowels of a building and miss their driver parked outside? How could one child not notice that their parent is missing? By the time the creature is revealed (and it is revealed, full-on, and looking a lot like a monster from another Abrams joint), the editing turns against the story. Characters that seem trapped in one location are suddenly somewhere else in time to see the plot. Emotional journeys complete without any motivation, save that the end of the movie is here. Sure, the film has the requisite shots—dirty-faced children blinking up into spotlights as something miraculous happens—but they fall flat because they don’t pay off what’s come before. Are we supposed to sympathize with the monster or be terrified by it? I’ve seen the movie, and I guarantee the answer is a lot muddier than the kids’ reactions suggest.
Super 8 reminds me of two other, non-Amblin, films. The first is Forrest Gump. Like the hero of that movie, the kids seem to be flitting in and around larger events without ever really connecting to them. There’s a big alien invasion movie happening right next door, but the kids are content to be in the ballpark and get their shot. They plunge in by the end—as Forrest certainly would if Jenny were in trouble—but you wonder why it took so long to move to this side of the camera.
Super 8 also reminds me of Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s half of the Grindhouse double feature. That one is a messy film (intentionally), but the point is to sit back and soak up the ambiance while ignoring the plot glitches and the bits that make no sense. You’re not there for the plot, anyway. So it is with Super 8. It’s not a new classic, but nostalgia does carry it a long, long way. Like the kids’ homemade movie-within-the-movie, it’s not great, but it’s entertaining, and you just have to give them credit for trying so hard.