Super 8 (2011)

(c) Paramount Pictures

There are many ways to approach a film, and I want to look at two of them in regard to Super 8: what it wants you to believe it’s going to be, and it what it actually is.

Part of a movie’s self identification comes from everything outside the film itself.  It starts with the marketing—trailers, TV spots, interviews with the director, etc.  All of this make a pitch to a potential audience, builds up a set of expectations that will, if everything falls into the right place, lead to a satisfying experience at the movies.  The first glimpse anyone ever got of Super 8 was a short teaser, released a full year before it reached theaters and before any amount of principle photography was completed.  By itself, it’s a well-made piece of marketing: a train rolls through the plains of middle America where it’s intercepted by an old Ford truck, intent on running it off the rails.  As the truck veers onto the tracks and barrels straight for the oncoming locomotive, we’re given a few contextual clues.  This is 1979, and this train originated from Area 51.

The train obliterates the truck and derails in the kind of gruesome, exciting, over-the-top mode of a perfect summer flick.  As the camera pans over the wreckage, we get two more teases: this is a J.J. Abrams film, and it flies under the wing of Steven Spielberg.  

Then we get the money shot.  Something pounds away from inside one of the fallen cars, one that bears the emblem of the United States Air Force.  Whatever’s trapped inside, it’s big, and it wants out.  And just as it breaks free, we cut away to the flickering shutter of an old Kodak camera before we’re finally given the title.

It created an immediate tingle of anticipation, and we didn’t get another glimpse of the movie for another six months during the Super Bowl.

For thirty-seconds, one of James Horner’s classic musical cues plays over a series of short cuts: kids on bikes, a cop under duress, tanks, explosions, and a general sense of awe—a nod to the kind we felt when first saw E.T.  The next full trailer only expanded that perception.  Longer cuts, brief bits of dialog, themes of loss and  coming-of-age set against the backdrop of alien mayhem.  The music, the close-ups, that evocative Amblin Logo—all of it promised a return to the kind of movies Spielberg used to make himself.

But when the movie premiered, audiences and critics walked away a little disappointed.  The film itself tries very hard to reach a certain set of expectations,  and it doesn’t quite deliver what it seems to promise. Despite all its potential, most of the trouble creeps in as the film can’t decide which facet of Spielberg it wants to pay homage to.

So here’s what Super 8 really is.

It’s 1979.  Four months after Joe Lamb lost his mother in a tragic factory accident, he’s busy helping his friend Charles make a zombie movie.  Joe’s father wants to send him away to camp for the summer, and Charles just wants to make his movie.  Joe, on the other hand, is just going along to get along, doing his best just deal with his pain.  He tags along with Charles and seems submissive to his dad, all the while clutching a locket that once belonged to his mom.

When Charles needs a girl for a character in his film, he zeros in on Alice Dainard.  She’s a cutie, and she knows how to drive.  She’s the girl every boy crushes on.  And the last person she wants to see is Joe Lamb.

On the night everyone assembles to film a crucial scene at the local train station, they witness the horrific crash from the teaser.  Soon, a monster is terrorizing the tiny town of Lillian, Ohio, and it’s about to reach deep into the lives of our heroes.

Abrams threw a lot of love into the film, and he does his best to shape it into something that might fit in with the classics that inspired it.  The dialog makes you laugh, but it isn’t memorable.  The music does its job, but you don’t walk away humming its notes.

Moving on, healing from past trauma takes up the bulk of Super 8‘s thematic pull, and Joe and Alice do a good job shouldering the burden.  Her dad was supposed to be at the factory that day six months ago, and Joe’s mom had come in to cover the deadbeat’s shift.  That small connection grows into something more between Joe and Alice, and slowly, they help each other to heal.

Portions of Super 8 are so earnest, so heartfelt, that you’re engaged right at the start on the strength of the performances alone.  Much of what makes it work are the actors themselves, injecting more life into their parts than kids their age typically do.  It doesn’t make for the kind of perfect storm Rob Reiner captured for Stand By Me, but Super 8 almost gets there.  It comes so close, in fact, that the third act’s weaknesses ride comfortably on the goodwill set up by the first two.  And much of that goodwill rides on Elle Fanning’s portrayal of Alice.

Alice is a child who’s had to grow up in a lot of ways on her own.  Parts of her are further along the path to womanhood than others.  At times she carries the weight of a long-suffering surrogate parent to her drunken father.  At others, she wraps her arms around the chance to be a kid again.  Acting in Charles’ movie becomes a rare opportunity to play.

Fanning makes it all real.  It’s that realness that sells the more complicated aspects of her budding relationship with Joe.  If not for Alice, and Elle’s portrayal of her, Joe’s third act rescue mission would be much more absurd than it already is.

This is a movie with more on its mind than thrills.  Abram’s script doesn’t stick with it enough to make it meaningful, just enough to let you know its on the radar.  A significant character’s insights into the creature’s abilities combine with Joe’s memory of his mother to create a moment that should have worked a little better than it does.  This is a story about seeing people.  Not as guest stars in our own personal plotlines, but as actual players, with feelings and desires just as heavy and special as our own.  Even an alien, one with a real nasty chip on its shoulder, deserves grace.

It’s a minor point, though, one the film tries to make clear but doesn’t.  Once everything comes together, the whole thing makes sense enough to feel complete, but it isn’t full enough or tight enough to really achieve what it wants to achieve.  Transcendence has to be earned.  Super 8 follows in some big footsteps, but it just can’t fill the same shoes.

Starring:

Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb)
Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard)
Kyle Chandler (Deputy Jackson Lamb)
Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard)
Riley Griffiths (Charles)

Written and Directed by J.J. Abrams

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