‘Super 8′ Review: Spielberg and Abrams do the Monster Mash

June 13, 2011

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Super? Well, sort of... Poster from Paramount Pictures

I was raised on Steven Spielberg films as a child. I spent countless hours watching them, rewatching, and then trying to recreate them with our family video camera and  whatever toys I had lying around. After seeing Super 8, it’s not hard for me to imagine J.J. Abrams doing the same thing.

Abrams’ film takes us back to 1970’s Lillian, Ohio, a steel town where a life full of hard, blue collar work looms over every day-dreaming child. The name of the game here is nostalgia, and Abrams paints each shot of small town life with such care that it’s hard not to long for it.

Stuck in the middle of Lillian is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a youngster who’s still reeling from the sudden death of his mother and adjusting to life with his already distant father, town Deputy Jackson Lamb (Friday Night Lights coach Kyle Chandler). Much to his father’s distaste, Joe spends his free time helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish up a homemade zombie movie with their friends, including Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), a schoolmate who immediately catches Joe’s eye and doesn’t let go.

The effort that the kids put into Charles’ film is amusing and oftentimes adorable, and so one night, in an attempt to gain “higher production value,” the group takes a night trip to a train station on the edge of town to shoot a pivotal scene. But then a train comes barreling down the tracks and derails, crashing and exploding all around them in spectacular fashion.

Soon afterwards strange things start happening around town. Dogs run away, car engines get stolen, and townsfolk start vanishing. When the Air Force moves in, it becomes clear that something monstrous escaped the train crash and is now stalking around town. Joe and his friends, like any good batch of movie kids, end up in the middle of the mystery and decide to sort it out on their own.

The film plays to Abrams strengths as a director. He crafts the action sequences to pulse-pounding perfection, and is able to ratchet up enough suspense early in the movie to make parts of Super 8 feel more like a slasher film than an adventure story. But what’s more impressive is his ability to create real tension and emotion between the the film’s young stars. Joe’s friendship with Charles, his feelings for Alice, and distance from his father quickly become the centerpiece of Super 8. Abrams extracts their feelings with such skill that they aren’t just believable, they’re also relatable to audience members across any age range.

The problem, however, is that for all of Abrams skill as a director, he’s still rather uneven as a writer. The conception of Super 8’s ideas is solid, but the actual execution leaves a lot to be desired. There are patches of laughable dialogue, a host of underdeveloped, stocky characters, and a lack of consistency in its overall tone.

But above all the biggest problem is how underwhelming the monster turns out to be. This is, after all, a monster movie, and so the creature had better be damn scary, or at least interesting, to keep us captivated. The monster here is a letdown not only in appearance (it looks like Cloverfield’s ugly cousin), but also in origin. When we finally find out what it is and why it’s here, it’s shrugworthy at best.

Perhaps what makes Super 8 something of a disappointment is the fact that we can’t help comparing it to Spielberg. The film courts this comparison. We see his name listed as an executive producer, the Amblin logo, and the familiar subject matter, and eventually we expect something unattainable. While Super 8 definitely has a look and feel that you want to fall in love with, it lacks that overarching sense of magic and wonder that Spielberg was able to breath into his early films. As his disciple and hopeful successor, Abrams is still a top student. He’s just not a master quite yet.

Super 8 is at times a thrilling, fun-filled ride, but ultimately is a bit underwhelming, especially in it’s third act: B