Review: J.J. Abrams' 'Super 8' is a Love Letter For Better or For Worse
by Jeremy Kirk
June 10, 2011
There's a moment about midway through J.J. Abrams' latest films, Super 8, that gets right to the heart of what the writer/director/mystery box filler was going for. Lillian, Ohio Deputy Jackson Lamb, played by Kyle Chandler, is addressing a smattering of townsfolk about strange disturbances in the 1979 town. Pets have run away. Odd things are happening with the electricity. Even a few people have up and disappeared. Lamb, walking to his squad car, is approached by people of the town one right after another. He addresses their concerns, and Abrams' camera glides around the actors and the town setting with continuous but confident movement. It feels right out of Steven Spielberg's Jaws, and that sense of nostalgia, the placement of having seen this style of filmmaking before, is no accident.
The name of Abrams' game is nostalgia. Whether it's for a science fiction TV series from the '60s a la Star Trek or old but massive monster movies a la Cloverfield, it seems like a time capsule watching the films in which he's involved. All of that comes to a stylish head with Super 8, his love letter to Spielberg and the Amblin films of the early '80s. Abrams is a child of those films, and, for better or worse, the passion he feels for them is found in every frame of Super 8. Sometimes it works, brings about a warm feeling of familiarity mixed with stellar child actors and a sense of family. Other times it doesn't work quite as well. Super 8 ultimately leaves us juxtaposed, appreciative of the effort and moved by the tenderness both in front of the camera and behind, but also wondering if the passion isn't too evident, the nostalgia getting in the way of original storytelling.
Deputy Lamb isn't the protagonist here. That would be his young son, Joe, played by Joel Courtney, who is having a hard time connecting with his father. When Super 8 opens, their family has experienced a great loss, Joe's mother, and the young boy finds some amount of solace in his friends. Most notably is Charles who wishes to make a zombie movie with his own super 8 camera. To the chagrin of his father, Joe agrees to help, and it's one fateful night when he and his friends are shooting near the train tracks. They witness an astonishing train derailment. Soon after, strange things begin happening around town, and Joe and his friends begin to suspect something not quite human had broke free of wrecked train.
There are dual tones to Super 8. On one side, it's a family drama about a boy who wishes to find a relationship with the father he has never really had to connect with. The loss of his mother has forced Joe to turn to his father for guidance, and the loss of his wife has forced Jackson to become sole guardian to his son. The moments in Super 8 between Joe and his father are touching and made all the more powerful by how real these characters feel.
That comes from Abrams' love for Amblin films, as well. Like The Goonies, he allows the children in this film to speak freely, to act as real children do, not some Candy Land-playing, Hollywood sweet version of kids we often get. These kids cuss, they talk back, they fight with their siblings, and you get the feeling Abrams and Spielberg, who served as producer here, never talked down to them behind the scenes. The relationships among the kids might not be all-involving. A few of them seem only in there to pad the numbers, but Joe, Charles, and Alice, played by Elle Fanning, are all solid and genuine characters.
The other side of Super 8 is the monster movie, the mystery surrounding the creature who stalks through town but which no one ever sees until it's too late. For the most part, the creature side of Super 8 works. Abrams does a nice job only giving us flashes of it early on and much of destruction it causes occurs just off camera. Late in the film, when the monster is a bit less discreet, the film provides great moments of both tension and hair-raising action. Going back a bit, that train derailment scene is quite breathtaking, literally awesome, and heart-stopping even if it's a bit ludicrous in its logistics.
And then the last third of Super 8 kicks in. The military has long-since arrived, and other than being the thinly developed antagonists you know they're going to be, they steer the story in a direction the film should have taken much earlier. The thought of a group of children trekking through a desolate town searching for answers about a mysterious creature is fascinating. Unfortunately, it all comes too late for comfort, and Super 8 quickly devolves into expository recordings and running through tunnels. That's not even saying anything about the last 20 minutes when the sentimentality becomes all too heightened and any idea of subtle nuance in Abrams' subtext has been ripped off the body of the story and eaten raw.
The last quarter of Super 8 doesn't really have much for Chandler to do, either, and this is a great shame. His presence is felt every time he's on screen, and there are more than a few flashes of Harrison Ford in his performance. One moment when he stands up to an military officer even gives us a glint of Indiana Jones. Chandler has amazed audiences with his performances in the past, particular those who watched "Friday Night Lights". With Super 8, it's evident he's destined to be one of the great leading men in future projects.
The nostalgia is there in Super 8. Glimpses of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Instances of Jaws. A fleeting sense of E.T. The love J.J. Abrams has for Amblin Entertainment and Steven Spielberg is in every frame, every lens flare, every focused shot of a character's face as they stare off camera at something that shouldn't be there. His passion is bright, illuminating the story at hand and directing every shot of Super 8. And for the better part of the film, that passion burns into a story that is both moving and exciting. It burns to the point of fumes, and it's at that point, the last part of Super 8, that you realize passion can't power a film all on its own. Ultimately, it's a success, but you can't help but feel you're looking at the bedroom wall of adolescent J.J. Abrams and all the movie posters that blanket it.
Jeremy's Rating: 7 out of 10