Super 8

It’s 1979.  Joe Lamb is in a pretty bad place.  His beautiful mother recently died in a mysterious industrial accident and it’s far too soon to let go.  When we first meet him, he’s sitting motionless on a swing clutching a silver locket staring at it with his head down.  He’s too upset to join his friends and family who have gathered inside his home to eat and mingle after her funeral.

Thankfully, he has a couple of distractions.  Charles, his demanding best friend since Kindergarten (his family welcomes the grieving Joe with open arms and free food), is a budding George A. Romero.  He’s making a very low budget zombie movie called The Case and has enlisted the help of a few of their mutual friends to make it happen.  (He’s hoping to enter the finished film in a local film festival.)  

When Charles decides to give his heroic detective character a wife, Jackson becomes smitten with his friend’s casting choice, which inevitably causes tension.  (As the aspiring filmmaker would put it, the whole situation is not exactly “mint”.)

Alice is a pretty blond from down the street whose troubled father often tangles with Joe’s dad, Jackson, the deputy sheriff of this small Ohio town.  (Jackson actually arrests him when he comes to the post-funeral gathering.)  Along with the bespectacled, easily nauseous Martin, braces-wearing firework obsessive Cary and wide-eyed Preston, the gang of six head out for a location shoot at a train station.

Up to this point, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is a pretty ordinary movie with not much going for it.  Then, when Alice (a breakthrough performance for Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister) rehearses her lines for a key scene with Martin (Gabriel Basso), the aforementioned detective, all the boys (Joel Courtney (Joe), Ryan Lee (Cary) and Zach Mills (Preston) among them) and the audience are stunned. 

She doesn’t need to look at the script, she knows her lines cold.  And the collective emotional reaction she brings out of them (and us, for that matter) leaves them completely speechless.  (Martin even wipes away a tear, at one point.)  In a latter scene, she does another nice job rehearsing what she’ll do as a zombie which mesmerizes Joe.

Bossy director Charles (an overbearing, unlikeable Riley Griffiths) has a Robert Rodriguez moment when a train is heard in the distance.  Figuring the moment will greatly improve his production values, he orders everyone in place to get the scene shot quickly.  (Why would he do that when the rehearsal was as close to perfect as he’s ever gonna get?)  But while the actors now have to shout their lines, thereby completely ruining the emotional centre of the scene, Joe notices a pick-up truck driving purposely in front of the passing train.

What happens next is easily the best produced sequence in the movie, an exhilarating cacophony of wanton destruction that produces a whole bunch of unanswered questions (some of which are never properly dealt with) once everything calms down.  (How convenient that the abandoned yet slightly damaged Super 8 camera they were using never stopped rolling.)  The kids, who absurdly survive without any serious injury, are shocked to learn that the driver of the pick-up is a science teacher from their school. 

Initially thinking he’s dead, he turns out to be very much alive, another highly improbable moment.  He clearly knows what he was doing but offers no helpful details, just the usual warnings to the already frightened kids to keep their mouths shut or all their parents will die.

Nevertheless, Joe snags a souvenir, a unusual-looking white object that Charles notes looks a lot like a Rubik’s Cube.  (There are thousands more spread out amongst the debris.)  Meanwhile, the military suddenly swoop in to survey the extensive damage and ultimately, to keep Deputy Sheriff Jackson (Kyle Chandler doing the best he can with a limited role) and the rest of Lillian, Ohio completely in the dark.

When we finally learn what those mysterious cubes do, it’s actually quite cool.  There’s a scene late in the film where most of the kids break into their high school to watch some old home movies their science teacher had locked away in a trailer in the parking lot.  (How come the military guys didn’t find them first?  They weren’t exactly difficult to track down.  Neither was that Super 8 camera from the accident site but I digress.)  A film that rolls on a school projector solves the mystery of the cubes.  An audiotape the science teacher made of the incident fills in the backstory.

Long before that, weird events take place shortly after the train crash.  The Sheriff goes missing from a gas station as well as the walkman-wearing attendant.  Long stretches of telephone wire suddenly vanish along with a repairman.  The town’s canine population up and leaves.  (Many of them are unexplainably accounted for by residents from a neighbouring county a little later on.) 

At a boisterous town hall meeting a woman complains about missing microwaves from her store and an old man claims to hear military chatter on his CB.  Deputy Jackson wisely pulls him aside and gets the frequencies.  After a fight with her drunken, lonely father (a miscast, distractingly sideburned Ron Eldard), Alice goes missing, as well.

Super 8 began as a simple, storyless pitch from Alias creator J.J. Abrams to Steven Spielberg who liked the idea enough to have his Amblin Entertainment company produce the actual project.  Maybe he should’ve looked at a script first.  Although it is thankfully not the usual braindead summer fare (there is some intelligence at work here), it never really comes together the way it ought to.  It’s a major disappointment.

The subplot about Joe’s mom’s death doesn’t really work.   (Hard to care about someone we barely get to know.)  Ditto the distance between Joe and his dad and Alice and her Iggy Pop-meets-blond-Elvis father.  The budding romance between Joe and Alice isn’t believable and their filmmaking pals aren’t terribly memorable, fully developed nor particularly lovable, even though they do have their moments.

And once you find out what the military is so eager to keep secret you realize that the lack of originality of this revelation really hurts the film’s credibility.  That being said, that train sequence is astonishingly good as are all of the effects in the film (except for that shy something you don’t get to see until the third act (a forgettable hybrid of other somethings from better movies) and maybe the other train sequence that humourously pops up during the cute, amusing end title sequence). 

Elle Fanning is wonderful as the naturally gifted, sweet and loyal Alice, the only character I genuinely cared about.  What a mistake to reduce her eventually to just another damsel in distress predicament.  And how about a shout-out to 7th Heaven’s David Gallagher, all grown up as the stoned store clerk who, because of his crush on Charles’ hot but whiny older sister, gets roped into being the crew’s chauffeur.  His love for the weed inspires the film’s single funniest line.

Despite feeling curiously unattached to most of these characters, the ending is really neat and quite touching.  There’s not a nerd in the world who won’t feel something while being dazzled by the visual splendour put on display.

But it deserves a better movie.

(Special thanks to Dave Scacchi.)

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 10, 2011
7:26 p.m.

Published in: on July 10, 2011 at 7:26 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I thought the ending was sappy and ridiculous. After killing all these people, the monster just up and leaves because some kid tells him to! The movie was a disappointment.

  2. […] 13 were good, very good or excellent.  Seven of these features – The Crow: City Of Angels, Super 8, X-Men: First Class, Eclipse (the third Twilight movie), Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo, A […]

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