When did moviegoers become so cynical? Back in the 1970’s and 80’s, that era of charming, original blockbusters that J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” so blatantly idolizes, filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Richard Donner and Rob Reiner pumped out films that ultimately valued story and character more than special effects. Not that there weren’t a lot of flashy sequences in “Star Wars” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” obviously, but those scenes were there to fill audiences with a sense of awe and wonder, not so much to drive the plot. And that was enough – that child-like sense of discovery and astonishment, combined with the thrill of adventure, provided lasting, even legendary, entertainments.
So why does Hollywood now think we absolutely require explosions, gunshots and cheap horror movie clichés to feel satisfied with our viewing experience? Under the tutelage of executive producer Spielberg himself, “Super 8” comes so close to re-creating the magic of “Close Encounters” or its most direct inspiration, “E.T.,” but somehow chokes in the clutch. For the first two-thirds of the film, Abrams builds suspense masterfully, taking the time to get the audience emotionally invested in his winsome group of young protagonists, reveling in the minutiae of life in a sleepy, rural Ohio town. We recall great adventures like “The Goonies,” where perplexed adults take a backseat to eager, daring children, working their way through the pitfalls of early adolescence (which are, of course, literal in this case). Silently, we pray that Abrams knows how special “Super 8” can be, what a refreshing blast from the past this film provides after years of stale, interchangeable superhero flicks and Michael Bay-inspired VFX-orgies.
But Abrams can’t quite make it there in the end. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising; his past credits (“Mission: Impossible III,” the “Star Trek” reboot) have shown that while the director can certainly provide entertaining, engaging popcorn fare, he remains limited by genre convention and audience expectations. If he ever really lets his imagination run away with him, I think Abrams has a truly great film somewhere in him. “Super 8” promises us something extraordinary, then suddenly turns remarkably formulaic, defying any kind of internal logic in order to hit the “necessary” plot points. Fierce feuds are laid aside in the blink of an eye, mysteriously convenient technology goes unexplained, and lots of shiny shit gets blown up real good. After a first hour that feels so fresh, “Super 8” concludes so passably familiar.
I have painted my negative feelings toward “Super 8” in such broad strokes so as to avoid spoiling the details of its conclusion, which, don’t get me wrong, is extremely watchable even if it doesn’t deliver on the film’s full potential. I also wanted to get my reservations out of the way first, so that the last words I leave you with are regarding the many things that Abrams gets right. The first is his setting, the nostalgic atmosphere of 1979 small-town America; when the shit inevitably hits the fan, you get the feeling like Lillian, Ohio was due for a bit of a shake-up. References to walkmen, Three Mile Island, Walter Cronkite and communism skirt self-parody, but wind up feeling more like loving homages to the era.
The second and most important thing that Abrams gets perfectly right is the cluster of young adventurers at the center of his story. There’s our earnest hero, Joe (Joel Courtney), his bossy buddy Charles (Riley Griffiths), budding pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee), and the somewhat aloof but alluring Alice (Elle Fanning), who these barely post-pubescent boys have only just learned could be considered a love interest. Charles is a budding filmmaker (no doubt inspired by the recent low-budget successes of directors like, well, Spielberg), and has enlisted his friends’ help in putting together a zombie flick to submit to a film festival in Cleveland (shout out wOOt wOOt). While filming a key scene, in which both Alice and, by association, Fanning, announce their considerable acting talents, the group witnesses a horrific train crash, in a thrilling sequence which would stand out much better if Abrams didn’t go nuts with the CGI-enhanced action later in the film.
After the crash, things start to go a bit wonky in Lillian, and here Abrams uses visual storytelling quite capably to build suspense: Air Force units scour the town despite insisting to Joe’s father, the town sheriff (Kyle Chandler) that the train’s cargo contained nothing dangerous; all the local dogs simultaneously run away from home; and mysterious power surges periodically shroud Lillian’s citizens in darkness. Joe and his friends are quite confident, thanks to their super 8 (hey, that’s the name of the show) footage of the crash, that something escaped from the train wreck; but what?
I liked the chemistry between Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning; they walk the fine line between sweet and awkward that true romances always do at that age (are you taking notes, Daniel Radcliffe and Bonnie Wright?). I liked Joe’s steadfast father, trying to keep it together in the wake of his wife’s death, and not always succeeding. I liked the way the boys’ early adolescent voices rose and fell from moment to moment, cracking with high-pitched sincerity in the film’s most frantic, chaotic scenes.
But above all, I liked when Abrams gave in to sentimentality and romanticization (rather surprising, for me). The film’s climax may commit several cinematic crimes (the enigmatic force from the train is revealed much too soon, and Abrams glides over a major McGuffin with the same subtlety that he used “red matter” in “Star Trek”), but the very last moments give us a redeeming glimpse of Spielberg-esque optimism. Movies like “E.T.” were nothing if not sappy, but when stacked up against the cold, paint-by-numbers emotion of so many action-adventure films these days, there is something shockingly genuine about schmaltz.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars