Its almost cliché for a film buff of my generation to credit Steven Spielberg as the reason for becoming interested in film. Unless you’re some avante-garde snob whose idea of a movie is anything with subtitles and anything directed by Ingmar Bergman, chances are that Spielberg was a heavy and constant influence in the late 70s and throughout the 80s. So it was just a matter of time for a director to come along and pay an homage to Steven Spielberg with a film that can only be described as Spielbergian. That director is J.J. Abrams (TV’s ALIAS, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3, STAR TREK) and the film is SUPER 8. No details are spared in recreating the tone and style of Spielberg’s early classics like E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF A THIRD KIND. The camera closes in on people’s faces when they react to phenomenal occurrences, characters talk over each other, there is a theme of parental loss, and the film even takes place in Ohio, where Spielberg was born. Abrams nails these elements, which is obviously helped by the fact that Spielberg served as an executive producer on SUPER 8. Unfortunately, for all the painstaking attention to detail Abrams showers upon his film, he neglects the most important aspect of the movie: storytelling.

SUPER 8 takes place in 1979 in a small Ohio steel town (film was shot in West Virginia) where we meet Joe (Joel Courtney) at the beginning of the story. He has just lost his mother, who was crushed to death in an industrial accident at the steel mill where she worked. All he has left now is his father (Kyle Chandler), who is the town’s deputy sheriff. Fast forward 4 months later and Joe and his buddies (Charles – Riley Griffiths, Preston – Zach Mills, Martin – Gabriel Basso, and Carey – Ryan Lee) are spending their summer vacation shooting a zombie movie (stay for the end credits to check out the hilarious finished film). One night they get Alice (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s sister) to take her dad’s car and drive the crew to a train depot to shoot some scenes. Alice’s father is Louis (Ron Eldard), an alcoholic who used to work with Joe’s mom at the steel mill. Joe is immediately smitten with Alice and begins to immediately win her affection. However, Joe’s and the rest of the film crew’s efforts are cut short at the train depot when they suddenly witness a horrific train wreck that is deliberately caused by a pickup truck that runs straight into a government train. The crash sets forth a series of events that includes the military taking over the small town and something mysterious causing havoc and disappearances throughout the town.

SUPER 8 starts off wonderfully. J.J. Abrams wastes no time in setting up the tone and style of the movie and introducing us to the characters. The children are perfectly cast and the director is able to draw strong performances from them. What’s more, you immediately connect with the kids. School has just got out for the summer and the kids are going to spend it making a zombie movie. The carefree, childlike innocence of these kids pulls you into their world. The setup is also strengthened by the various subplots of Joe’s dealing with his mother’s loss, his distant relationship with his father, and his attraction to Alice. The turning point of the movie is the train crash at the depot. You see clips of it in the trailers, but none of that prepares you for the awesome magnitude of the scene and it ends up being the most spectacular moment in the movie. There is a sense of disbelief in watching all the kids escape unscathed from a train crash that is made to look like railway armageddon. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty awesome scene that will leave you breathless (and you must see it on a big screen).

Where the film begins to fall apart is shortly after the first turning point. For as strong as the setup is in introducing us to the characters and creating the film’s atmosphere, there really is no setup for the main plot of the film. A train crashes, an alien being escapes from the train, and it wrecks havoc across the town with the military chasing after it. For one thing, the idea of an alien escaping a government train that destroys a small town held zero appeal for me. Had I seen this film back in the 70s or 80s (which means it would’ve been directed by Spielberg and not Abrams), this would have been a great idea. However, with 30 years in between that are full of Spielberg-ripoffs, UFO films, and the huge influence of the benchmark setting TV show, THE X-FILES, something like SUPER 8 cannot erase all that has come before and expect us to see it with the same level of astonishment as audiences did back then.

Furthermore, once the main plot is set into motion, the story proceeds from beat to beat without any momentum. No momentum for the main plot is established in the first Act and so it completely depends on establishing and building upon the story during the second Act. When the military comes into the town to find the alien, you never get a sense that things are now serious for the townspeople. In E.T., when the military took over Eliot’s neighborhood after discovering that E.T. was being hidden there, Spielberg presented the military/government as a faceless, sinister, and imposing behemoth that never gave an explanation to anyone of its intentions. Here, we get a little bit of that, but the military here comes off as more bumbling and idiotic than anything else. As for the alien, we’re given a few scenes in which the alien abducts some townsfolk and destroys stuff, but its one alien and I found it hard to believe that an alien of that size can 1.) cause that much damage without being detected by the townspeople or military and 2.) the military, with all of its weaponry, is unable to find and destroy it (there is one particular scene where all hell is breaking loose in the town and the kids are running for their lives. The military has its tanks and weaponry out in full force and for some weird reason, its firing all over the place just to find 1 alien being). I was also disappointed in how Abrams chose to reveal the alien. Many movie geeks like it when a filmmaker doesn’t show us the monster or alien in their movies and leaves it to our imaginations. However, Spielberg has shown his creatures and he has done so with great effect by still managing to retain a sense of awe when the ultimate reveal of the creature is made. Not so here. When we finally see the alien, its unremarkable and just sort of happens. I didn’t mind so much the design of the alien, which to me isn’t nowhere near as important as how the alien is presented to the audience.

However, like all of Spielberg’s films, this film isn’t really about the main plot. Its not about getting the alien. SUPER 8 is first and foremost a coming of age story and a story about a father and son. These themes are prevalent in Spielberg’s films and its present here. The strength of the sub-plots is helped immensely by the fine performances from the children and the adult actors. What’s more, the drama is infused with the right level of humor to prevent anything from seeming melodramatic or cheesy. I’m not sure how younger audiences will take to these slower story threads given the mind-numbing wall-to-wall action they’re used to seeing in summer films, but I think they will at least relate to the children characters and, by extension, get reeled into the dramatic sub-plots.

What I mainly enjoyed about SUPER 8 was how faithfully J.J. Abrams recreates the time period and Spielberg’s world. The cinematography perfectly evokes the 1970s and every last detail from the period is perfectly recreated (i.e. I loved the old-school Kodak advertisements and the kid stuff that is littered all over the characters’ bedrooms). Of all the Spielberg touches in the film, the one I enjoyed most seeing and the one I felt was the best handled was the family dynamics. My best memories of E.T., CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and POLTERGEIST (Spielberg did not direct this film, but he wrote the story and had a lot of creative input in making the film) are the family moments around the kitchen table and the naturalness of the performances. The homes are always cluttered and looked real and lived-in as opposed to perfectly organized homes that look like movie sets. You forget the characters are acting and its almost like watching a documentary of a typical American family. There is certainly a very Americana feel to how Spielberg presented the family unit and Abrams recreates that perfectly in SUPER 8.

SUPER 8 is a solid film that contains some serious flaws. J.J. Abrams seems to have focused so much on getting the Spielberg look down that he forgot to develop a good story. The film tries very hard to be the perfect Steven Spielberg movie, but it never quite attains that status. On the other hand, the sub-plots work beautifully and there are some genuinely touching and emotional moments that, quite frankly, I was surprised that Abrams knew how to pull off. All in all, SUPER 8 is a good summer popcorn movie and in fact, it’s the quintessential summer popcorn movie as it recreates the very types of films that heralded the traditional summer movie season.

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