Movie Review: Suddenly Spielberg!

Do you love Steven Spielberg? Have you always wished that the Goonies and the kids from E. T. would get together and play around on the set of Aliens? If so, you’re going to love Super 8. If not, you will be slightly less amused, in the sense that you may not be amused at all.

Film: Super 8
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich
Written and Directed by: J. J. Abrams
Genre: Science fiction, drama, action
Rating: 4 out of 10 / C-


The year is 1979. The place is Spielbergville, Ohio. Thirteen-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) lives with his father Jack (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff’s deputy. Both of them are still mourning the loss of Mrs. Lamb in a freak accident, Jack by devoting all of his energy to his job and Joe by helping his friends—including local crush Alice (Elle Fanning)—make a zombie movie on Super 8 film for a local film festival. While filming a scene one night, the kids witness an apparently deliberate and assuredly destructive train derailment. Almost immediately, the military swoop in to clean up the mess, even though the train’s cargo is missing…and is much more dangerous than anyone realizes. (Okay, it’s a big honking alien.)

Is it an alien? Yes, it’s an alien.

While Tobe Hooper was nominally the director of the classic 1982 film Poltergeist, virtually everybody who worked on the film has said that Steven Spielberg was actually the one calling the shots. To be certain, Poltergeist holds much more in common with Spielberg’s style and themes than it does anything in Tobe Hooper’s filmography (primarily up to that point limited to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Salem’s Lot). Similarly, Spielberg’s presence looms very large over Super 8, even if he’s only credited as producer. It seems much more at home with E. T. than it does with Alias, Lost or Star Trek. Whether you think that’s good or that’s bad depends largely on your tolerance and/or enjoyment of Spielberg’s films, especially Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E. T., two ostensible science fiction films where the science fiction is just window dressing for human drama (or lack thereof).

Super 8 is J. J. Abrams’ first fully original film as a director, in the sense that it’s not a sequel, reboot or adaptation of a previous work or franchise. Like Zack Snyder, who’s first fully original film Sucker Punch failed to fully deliver on its hyped-up promises, Abrams’ film stands on highly shaky ground. However, for all its faults, Sucker Punch had a strong visual palette and highly distinctive style, something Abrams has yet to fully develop. Similarly, unlike fellow TV-creator-turned-film-director Joss Whedon, Abrams’ script doesn’t give us fully fleshed-out characters with organic voices. Most characters, even important ones, are highly static and can be described with one or two traits that are endlessly repeated over the course of two hours. Every line of dialogue is written in bold, large, easy-to-read type with little subtlety and virtually no subtext or hidden meaning.

It’s primarily up to the cast to make Abrams’ words come alive, and by and large they aren’t up to the task, with a few notable exceptions. This is Joel Courtney’s first film, and he makes a good impression in the lead. He’s not going to win any awards, but of all the kids in the film, he seems the most at ease and the most natural. Elle Fanning also makes good with her role, occasionally going an extra step too far, but making Alice a solid, grounding presence for Joel and the film. The rest of the kids are less impressive, with most giving one-note performances that never go beyond the words on the page. Most egregious is Riley Griffiths as the director of the Super 8 film-within-a-film, an obnoxious, foul-mouthed emotional bully who more than anyone deserves to be on the receiving end of a little mayhem from beyond the stars.

The adults don’t fare much better. Kyle Chandler never seems fully committed to his role. Although easy on the eyes, he seems constantly aware that any handsome, sensitive-eyed, moderately-paid actor in his 40s could have played his part. Ron Eldard, as Alice’s alcoholic father, appears to have wandered in from the set of a nearby afterschool special. Toby Emmerich, as the big bad general in charge of the military clean-up, is an extremely low-key antagonist. His character could have been a stomping, sneering baddie (think Stephen Lang in Avatar), so it’s nice that Emmerich downplays the role, even to the point of sometimes making himself nearly irrelevant to the plot.

Damn, but those are some sensitive eyes.

The film is covered in a thick syrup of nostalgia that often threatens to choke the life out of it. The year is, of course, 1979, and in case you forget that, Abrams is always happy to remind you at every opportunity, usually with musical cues. In one scene, a character listens to Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” on a new-fangled device called a Walkman, which the script devotes almost a full minute to explaining for the benefit of the audience. Abrams would have been 13 in 1979, and Joe is quite obviously a stand-in for him. The whole film has a distinct wish-fulfillment vibe to it. Kids save the day and are always more aware, astute and creative than the adults around them (who are idiots at worst and incompetent at best). It’s a constant theme from all the 1980s films that fill the script like footnotes, such as The Goonies, Cloak And Dagger and Explorers (not to mention Spielberg, Spielberg and Spielberg).

The primary flaw in the film is that much of the film’s plot and energy is derived from the emotions and human drama surrounding the events of the train derailment and not the event itself. While the film contains some great CGI and a masterfully choreographed (but completely ludicrous) train derailment, these moments are few and far between. Abrams wisely keeps the alien hidden until the final act, which leaves us to deal entirely with the characters’ reactions and responses. However, very few of the characters have any depth to them, and it’s extremely difficult to care about what happens to most of them or if they resolve their personal problems. The final scenes practically redefine “anti-climactic” and are full of hollow emotional victories that are are entirely undeserved by the film’s own merits. We’re supposed to feel sad or happy or frightened because the music (and film convention) tells us to, not because the script has taken the proper steps to honestly arrive at the proper emotional denouement. Abrams skips straight to the heart-tugging payoff without showing us the work necessary to get there.


Not pictured: Steven Spielberg.

Super 8 is a prime example of how your mileage may vary. I will admit that I’ve never been a big fan of Spielberg or his style, Poltergeist aside, and I’ve never been won over by simple emotion (see also: bastard, cynical). It’s clear that the film is meant for adults who want to be reminded of the movies they loved as kids. It has far too much violence, profanity (usually from children) and intense moments to truly be a kids’ movie. People actually die in this film, kids are constantly in peril, and most quiet moments are punctuated with a sudden explosion or similarly loud event. If you enjoyed all the films referenced above, you’ll probably find quite a bit to like about Super 8. If that’s not you, I’d recommend that you go see X-Men: First Class again.

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and possibly an alien (but is really just a weather balloon).<a href="; title="imageimage

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