Abrams’ Speilbergsploitation Falls Short

Super 8, the latest effort from J.J. Abrams’ mystery box, is a blend of alien invasion, coming of age, and learning to let go films wrapped up in a glossy, nostalgic shell. The problem is, it never comes close to pulling off any of these narrative instruments completely. It never settles on what it wants to be and muddles through a lot of the narrative to shift to the next set piece. The alien invasion aspect is never given any high stakes that feel real. The coming of age bits are ham fisted. And the letting go element comes up empty with no real emotional depth to it. But, just like Star Trek, Super 8 looks damn good.

I’m sure you know what the movie is about by now, but: In the summer of 1979, while filming a super 8 zombie movie, a group of friends witness a massive train derailment and explosion. Not sure how a pickup truck could derail a train, but whatever. The train’s monstrous alien cargo escapes during the crash and the next day, weird happenings begin to plague the town. Dogs run away. Engines disappear from cars. Kyle Chandler stops drinking. Despite military intervention, it’s up to the kids to save their town.

The kids seem like generally good actors – the problem is that the characters are a nothing but running gags. One kid pukes when he’s scared. Another one’s a pyro that curses a lot. The fat kid is bossy and says “mint” every goddamn sentence. Our main protagonist, Joe Lamb, is still grieving after losing his mother in an industrial accident four months prior. His love interest, played by Dakota Fanning’s sister Elle, is the daughter of the man whose drinking led to Joe’s mom’s death. Fanning is great and contends with even the film’s adult actors. Everyone else is kinda stuck in their stereotypical borders.

The lens flares also play a major role in the film, for no discernible reason. Yeah J.J., we get it. Lens flares are your thing. They looked fresh in Star Trek and added to the natural aesthetics of space, but in Super 8 they’re just overused and obnoxious. There’s no stylistic purpose this time around. Besides that one glaring problem, the film is framed fantastic. Every shot looks terrific and the production design succeeded in creating the titular Anytown, USA. The score by Abrams favorite Michael Giacchino is great and swells at just the right moments. He doesn’t blast you with trumpets every time you’re supposed to jump out of your seat. Well played.

Like every project Abrams is involved in, there was a great air of mystery surrounding Super 8. I have no idea why. After watching the film, there’s nothing to figure out and really nothing Paramount could have done in their marketing to spoil anything. The monster’s design has been kept a secret, but it’s pretty boring looking. It resembles an organic Transformer. In fact, the only real secret of the film was spoiled yesterday when the “Super 8 viral video” was released online. Real subtle name. The video shows a bit of the monster, but also explains why it’s pissed and what the mysterious cubes are. Those two elements are the only thing in the movie to figure out, so why release the answer online?

Spielberg was, of course, a producer on the film and his trademark portrayal of wonder and awe is all over it. Abrams’ film lacks the heart though. Super 8 tries really hard to be a Spielberg film while fumbling over its own nostalgia and landing in the heap of mediocre alien movies that infest modern cinema. I don’t want to hate on it too hard though. It’s worth seeing in the theater for several reasons, I just feel like it could have been so much better.