To those who would say imitiation is the sincerest form of flattery, I present Super 8, a film written and directed by J.J. Abrams as a tribute or love letter to the Amblin productions of the late '70s and early '80s. From time to time, there is a glimmer of, at the very least, Spielberg's productions during that era -- The Goonies, maybe Gremlins -- but little to none of what made Spielberg's actual directorial efforts exciting and entertaining. Instead, Abrams has crafted a period piece that feels entirely reflective of the present day, and all in negative ways.
Set in the summer of 1979, Abrams focuses on a group of five friends in the small town of Lillian, Ohio. School is out for the summer, and the group is busy trying to finish shooting an 8mm zombie movie. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the writer/director, Martin (Gabriel Basso) is the star, Preston (Zach Mills) is a crew member and extra, Cary (Ryan Lee) runs the camera, and Joe (Joel Courteney) does the makeup. Anxious to give his film more of an emotional arc, Charles invites a girl, Alice Dainerd (Elle Fanning), to play the wife of Martin's character. While the group is filming near the local train tracks, they inadvertently capture a truck driving directly into the path of an oncoming train, and the subsequent wreck when the two collide.
From the moment the truck collides with the train, Super 8 is over. Call me a crotchety old man who doesn't understand the current generation, but the idea that the accident, as staged by Abrams, is meant to be a "fun" moment in an adventure movie purportedly aimed at youths and families is flatly ridiculous. The crash lasts nearly three minutes, sending dozens of cars hurtling off the track and shards of metal in every direction. The wood-built train station even explodes, while two of the characters are underneath it. Watching the scene, it's impossible to believe that any one of these kids, much less all of them and the camera survive, and yet, Abrams seems to want the audience to find it enjoyable.
Inside the wrecked truck is the boys' science professor (Glynn Turman), who tells them to get out before it's too late. The army swarms the wreckage, looking for something. The answer is both obvious and relatively uninteresting from a dramatic standpoint (it works to motivate the characters, but is not interesting in and of itself), but Abrams does gain traction by highlighting a tentative romance between Joe and Alice, who bond despite a long-standing feud between their respective fathers (Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard) over an incident that resulted in Joe's mother's death. Had Abrams stayed with this thread, Super 8 would be a better movie, but when Alice goes missing, it's back to the loud theatrics.
The group dynamic borrows most heavily from The Goonies, and there are times when their companionship is funny and entertaining. However, Abrams gives the characters unnecessarily crude dialogue (I have no doubt that real boys call each other "pussy," but is it a good example to be setting five times in a PG-13 movie?) and keeps short-changing their screen time for sequences about the military, about Joe's dad, who is also the city's temporary sheriff, and for "mysterious" sequences prolonging the movie's big reveal. Other action scenes are the same story as the train sequence: why is it okay to give us an extended sequence where four of the boys run through the town while tanks crawl the streets with their weapons misfiring? If Super 8 was set in 2011, I imagine the sequence be slightly disturbing, but somehow the period setting allows the audience to gloss over it. Although Spielberg produced the film, it's hard to see how the man who once erased the guns from E.T. would enjoy these kinds of pyrotechnics.
The pertinent words in that old phrase seem to be "imitation" and "flattery," but with Super 8, it's "imitation" and "sincere." Not only is Abrams' imitation of Spielberg's productions off-base (at least, off-base from the sense of awe and whimsy I liked in Amblin's films), too much of Super 8 feels calculated, either to Abrams' past successes or to the audience's emotions. The fact that the kids are filmmakers feels like an easy way to get laughs, the drawn-out pacing a cheap way to force tension, and the reveal, and the way the advertising is keeping it a secret, a gambit to recapture the viral impression of Cloverfield. From time to time, Super 8 is very successful when it comes to human emotions, but for Abrams, "imitation" wins out over "sincere."
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