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Super 8

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I'm conflicted about this movie. It is definitely a complete turn-around from the film I saw last weekend (The Tree of Life), which I loved and will want to see again and will buy the Blu-Ray disc. I enjoyed Super 8 while I was watching it, but I doubt I'll ever feel the desire to watch it again, much less buy it. It has a lot of good things going for it: Kyle Chandler can do no wrong, or at least I've seen no sign of it yet; the rest of the cast is very good too, including several young actors in their first role (Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths); Elle Fanning is outstanding, quickly proving that Dakota is going to have to keep at the top of her game or risk being considered the less talented sister of that family. The film is full of action as well as smaller, emotional scenes, hitting all the right notes at the appropriate moments. Trouble is, that is the movie's weakness too. It's cookie-cutter movie-making. We've seen it all before, even if the FX might be bigger and the stakes higher this time around.

While written and directed by J. J. Abrams, it has producer Spielberg's touch all over it. I don't mean the Spielberg from his first flashes of brilliance (Jaws, Close Encounters), nor the mature Spielberg with his classic dramas (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Empire of the Sun). No, this is the Spielberg as producer of a slew of action/adventure/comedies of the '80s after his star rose so high so quickly. Switch out a couple of characters or plot elements and this could be The Goonies, Gremlins, *batteries not included, or even Young Sherlock Holmes. That is not to say that those movies weren't entertaining in their own way, just that they all seem like assembly-line production efforts. Young kids are in peril, and while the evil or terror or inexplicable event might differ in each movie, the kids are plucky enough and resourceful enough to come out on top in the end.

Super 8 has "Popcorn Flick" writ large all across the face of it, which is fine if that is all you care about. But both Abrams and Spielberg have proven in the past they have talent to do so much better. While I seem to be one of the few who did not care for Abrams' Trek, I have enjoyed quite a few other things he has done or been a part of. Mission Impossible III was better than II although not as good as I, Alias was great for a couple of seasons then went completely off the rails, and while I enjoyed Lost for almost its entire run, any faults in those shows can't necessarily be levelled at Abrams. He had set the course for them but others handled the reins for most of their exisitence. And I still love Fringe, although I have no idea how much input J. J. has had on it in these years he has been concentrating on movies.

It pains me to see such talented people be content to fall in line with the Hollywood ethos. Let's just get them in the theaters, lull them into turning off their brains, then throw the most dazzling FX we can come up with at them, and they'll lap it up and ask for more. I have been a fan of science fiction and fantasy for many years so I know all about the suspension of disbelief, but there are still things that throw up giant red flags for me. I know it is pointless to bring some of these up, and the next few sentences will be spoilers, so anyone averse to that can skip the rest of this paragraph. First, what earthly reason would the Air Force have for transporting this creature and the artifacts across country by train? One small pick-up truck would probably just be pushed down the tracks in front of the train or else knocked aside like a feather rather than cause the massive derailment depicted. That derailment destroys the train station, scatters railcars all over the place, and yet the kids' car right beside the tracks is undamaged so they can make their getaway as soon as the military arrives. Plus the man driving the pick-up truck (Glynn Turman) survives, but of course it is because he has information to impart. And to top it off, the creature is described as a subterranean species, and we do see the massive tunnels it has dug underneath the town. Why would a subterranean species even have a concept of outer space, much less build a spaceship capable of crossing the light years to Earth? A lot of things that don't add up.

There was no reason for this to be set in 1979, except I think they wanted to invoke the fond memories of those other cult movies. However, it reminded me of a line from Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, when a fan at a film festival asks if a certain scene in the film just screened was an homage to another film or director. Allen's partner (Tony Roberts) replies, "No, we just stole the idea outright." When you start stealing from yourself as it seems Spielberg has done here, it is a tragic reminder of what is wrong in Hollywood.

I am not trying to dissuade anyone from seeing this movie, and I'm sure the majority of those that do see it will like it. It will be the number one movie this week, but at a lower total that the past few weeks in spite of its huge promotion. I think it likely the prevailing word of mouth will be positive, so it should do respectable business for several more weeks and will be considered a success. Just not in my mind.

 

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Writer/Director
J. J. Abrams

Producer
Steven Spielberg

Released
June 10, 2011

Cast
Kyle Chandler
Joel Courtney
Elle Fanning
Riley Griffiths
Ryan Lee
Zach Mills
Gabriel Basso
Ron Eldard
Glynn Turman
Noah Emmerich

Full Credits at IMDb

DVD and Blu-Ray available now.