Ever since people saw the teaser before Iron Man 2, there has been an abundance of speculation as to what this creature may be. Is it good? Bad? An extension of Cloverfield? Is it a creature at all? We have all been kept at the edge of our seats in eager anticipation.
Well, I’m here to reveal the big surprise to you. The Super 8 monster is...poorly developed.
Yes, it is a monster. I was never too sure as to why people questioned that aspect.
J.J. Abrams is truly amazing at making people believe his productions are great. And for a little while, they are. But at the end of the day, they’re deceptively average. Look at Felicity, Alias, Lost, Fringe, Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek. All of them have greatness in them, but they lack some element that could propel it to that level. People will argue with me about Star Trek, but they’re wrong. It’s an entertaining film and it ends there. When I heard critics put it in their top 10 list of 2009, it solidified their insanity.
Set in 1979 for some odd reason, Super 8 is the story of Joe Lamb, who recently lost his mother in a freak accident at work, and whose father, the deputy, played splendidly by Kyle Chandler, is coping with it by being a distant father, oftentimes forcing his own views on him as to what a child his age should be doing, which does not include filming zombie flicks with your friends. So one night, Joe slips out of the house to film a scene at the local train station with his friends, and they witness one of the worst train crashes in history, unleashing an alien upon the town. The military enters, bad stuff happens, the father investigates, you know where this is going. Which is the problem with the film. There is no surprise once Abrams’ mystery box is open. It’s exactly what you expect, but worse.
If you’re going to set your film circa 1979, it should somehow pertain to the structure film, and if your reason is to evoke nostalgia, you’ve failed. Nostalgia for nostalgia's sake is pointless and lazy, and the only reason J.J. Abrams did that was so people could compare it to early Spielberg films, or films he produced, like E.T. and The Goonies. Not only that, but you’re hit on the head repeatedly in the first act with pop culture from the era, including the ill-placed use of “Don’t Bring Me Down” after a critically emotional scene (you’ll know it when you see it). But I know, I know, the filmmakers just don’t want you to forget that it’s not modern day. So here’s “Easy” BLASTING on the soundtrack. A few moments later (in case you forgot), here’s “My Sharona.” A few minutes have gone by without any reference, perhaps the fat kid should say “mint” to describe everything for five minutes. OH, and a teenager describes to an adult what a CASSETTE PLAYER is! You know that scene on the Star Wars: Episode I DVD where George Lucas and Steven Spielberg keep repeating “that’s great” in reference to the battle droids? That’s the kind of exchange I imagine Abrams and Spielberg sharing while working on this. Super 8 is the retarded cousin of Tree of Life.
There are two fantastic stories being told in Super 8. One is a touching coming of age story and the other is a gripping alien invasion film. Problem is, Abrams is unable to marry the two so they compliment each other. It falls apart towards the middle of the second act and combusts in the third. But for a while, it’s really good, and even when it’s bad, at least it’s still entertaining. The initial train crash has to be among the most ridiculous disasters ever put to screen. J.J. Abrams must be under the impression that children are impervious to any type of major injuries, because there is no way that they should have survived that event. In fact, I’m pretty sure Joe is blown to smithereens in one scene, but in the next shot he’s walking around the crash with his equally unscathed friends. And later in the film, they are next to a wall that is blown up by a tank, but only one of them suffers a broken leg. No damage to the ears, face, internal organs. Nothing.
Here’s where it gets really stupid. So, The guy in the truck that caused the train derailment, Mr. Woodward, warns them about the alien and the government and not to talk about it, and as he sees the soldiers approaching, he scares them off with a gun, and they escape in the yellow car they arrived in. So, when the soldiers arrive, they ask if anyone caught the license plate, which no one did, of course. This is a small town, remember, so I’m pretty sure they could track that car down without the plate. Simply look up all the people with that make in that color and voila! And a couple moments later at the crash, the commander of the squad, picks up empty film boxes. The next morning, when the children discover that the scene of the accident could make for great production value, they film at the top of the hill, exposed to everyone, including the helicopters, and later they’re filming outside Mr. Woodward’s house and the soldiers are raiding it...and no one bothers to question it...
So, the Super 8 camera captures the crash and a tiny bit of the monster, which they later discover. You would think they show this to someone, right? Wrong. As soon as they witness an extraterrestrial limb, they clearly forget about it, because they fail to use this information, perhaps because they discover a video explaining the entire history of the alien. Which begs the question: why is so much emphasis placed in the Super 8? Like the time setting, it serves no purpose in advancing the story.
So, here’s where it gets really stupid. The driver of the car that slammed into the train turns out to be a teacher at their middle school, referred to as “Old Man Woodward” by the children, yet another aspect that annoyed me. The man is only in his fifties, and I don’t think children ever referred to their teacher, no matter how old, as “old man -----” But I digress. As they investigate, it’s revealed that he worked for the government in Area 51 and, through physical contact with the being, understood that it was hungry and only wanted to get home. So his logical course of action was to cause an apocalyptic train crash that could have potentially killed six innocent children, which unleashed a ragingly furious, hungry alien upon a small town, causing millions in damages and several lives. That was his logical course of action. Like the children, he miraculously survives the crash to warn them about the alien and then is later killed by the commanding officer of the military camp (spoiler). A better way to have played that out should have been to simply have him die in that crash, because every subsequent scene with him is a waste of time.
There’s tension between Joe’s deputy father and the father of Alice, played by Elle Fanning, who happens to be the object of Joe’s affection. Her father, Louis, is an alcoholic and called out the day Joe’s mother was killed, so naturally Joe’s father blames Louis and not the factory worker that pulled the lever, releasing the beams that crushed her. So, both fathers forbid their offspring from socializing, which makes them want to hang out even more. This is a nice story, one that become contrived towards the end. Alice is kidnapped by the creature, which her father witnesses, but instead of trying to do anything, he just lies around the quarantine area after a couple people dismiss him as crazy until Joe approaches. You would think he would try to track down Joe’s father and tell him that their children are in danger or something. That would be a nice introduction to them reconciling.
Here’s where it gets really stupid. There is a sequence at the end when all the military tank are firing at the command of the alien. I can only assume, because of the continuous firing, that the soldiers keep reloading them. I’m no weapons expert, but I’m pretty sure there’s an easy way to disarm the machine guns too.
The military video explaining the alien I mentioned earlier is found in Mr. Woodward’s storage unit at the school, nicknamed “the dungeon” because it’s where he stores confiscated material from the students, yet somehow the military fails to check there, but it’s the first place the children think to check. Really??
The kids are perfectly introduced in the first act, each given their own characteristic, leading the audience to believe that they’ll all work together in the end and help save the day, or whatever. There’s even a really sweet development of the parents of Riley, who is the director of the zombie film they’re shooting. Yet once again, the filmmaker has no clue how to embrace the potential of these characters and they’re left to disappear into the background. If this was a problem, Abrams should have consolidated some of the kids to prevent this sort of lazy disregard.
Here’s where it gets really stupid. Towards the end, when the creature is “understood,” it’s a little too late, and there’s no way I can see any audience member sympathizing with this being, especially after it was devoured a handfull of people. It becomes a misunderstood alien film at the very last moment after being built up as an alien rampage film. Then it’s simply allowed to go home in its spaceship without anyone questioning their murdered townsfolk. When the alien is finally revealed and you see it in all its glory, it’s, to say the least, disappointing. Ten minutes after walking out, I had a difficult time trying to remember it. There’s nothing remotely iconic about the design.
Here’s where it gets really stupid. So, Deputy Lamb and Louis Dainard find their kids as the alien is taking off. But in the midst of this heartwarming reunion, which holds no emotional weight, the spaceship’s departure causes the collapse of a water tower, which crushes more vehicles and stores and more explosions happen, cheapening the entire scene. In a better film, the two parents would have met up with their children and played a hand in the climax that takes place in the creature’s lair. They take the time to escape the quarantine zone only to have a car ride to the place where they meet their children at the very end. It’s contrived. In a moment that’s supposed to symbolize a moment of letting go, Joe literally “lets go” of his mother’s locket that’s being forced into the sky. This would have had an impact if Joe was mourning the loss of his dead mother, but the film cuts from the day of the funeral to four months later, where Joe is happily hanging out with friends, filming movies, and falling in love. Not only does it avoid showing his arc, but it happens in the first five minutes. The only two characters that have an arc are the two feuding parents, and like I said, it’s contrived.
I’ve torn apart this movie to pieces, but on the flip side, there’s a lot to like about it. There are moments of true tension and horror, most notably the bus sequence, which Abrams impeccably choreographs. The acting from all the children is top notch, especially Elle Fanning. She’s marvelous, and expect to see a lot of her in the coming years. There’s a moment where she’s watching home movies with Joe that’s heartbreaking. And Kyle Chandler proves once again that he’s one of the best actors working today. He’s essentially playing a version of Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights, but I’m okay with that because not a lot of people watched that show, and it’s a good character and shows his range. Glynn Turman, who was the teacher in Gremlins, plays Mr. Woodward, and there’s a great homage to his death in that film in Super 8.
But for all the good aspects, there’s that lazy script bogging it down. Super 8 isn’t terrible in any respect, but it’s also something that people won’t remember in six months.