Two families look on in wonder at a mysterious event in Super 8.
If a director's heart and passion were indicators of quality, Super 8 would be one of the best movies of the year. If the Oscars were given for ability to imitate Super 8 producer Steven Spilberg's movies, the film would clean up. Unfortunately, all the passion and Spielberg-esque tricks in the world can't save this half-baked monster movie. Elements of it are terrific—namely the performances from the cast of child actors and the central love story—but most of the film, especially the final half-hour or so, falls totally flat. The thrills are cheap, the effects are overblown, and the sentimentality is groan-inducing. I wanted so badly to like Super 8—the highest-profile original film of the summer. But there are far too many problems to give it anything close to a recommendation.
The film is a ham-fisted homage to Abrams' youth and the old Super 8 films he and his contemporaries made in their childhood. Our main character is Joe (Joel Courtney, in his film debut), and he's in charge of the makeup on his best friend Charles' (Riley Griffiths) Super 8 zombie movie. Also on the crew are Cary (Ryan Lee) and Preston (Zach Mills), the pyrotechnics and lighting guys respectively. And the actors: Martin (Gabriel Bosso) and Alice (Elle Fanning). One night, while shooting, the gang observes a horrific train crash. They're lucky to survive, as is the man who drove the car that derailed the train. But it's clear upon discovering him that something is wrong, and he issues them a warning: Don't tell a soul what you saw or else you and your families will end up dead. They promise one another not to say a word, but their pact is but to the test when the power goes out all over town, the military comes in full force, people start disappearing left and right, and a mysterious creature begins lurking in the woods.
Instead of starting with the film's many problems, I'll talk about what I liked. The 1970s setting serves the story well and allows Abrams to have some fun reflecting on the time and culture. One of the film's funniest moments happens when the town's citizens—angry about the mysterious events happening—says she thinks it's a Soviet attack.
I also really appreciated the tenderness and innocence of the relationship between Joe and Alice. Both Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are terrific and perfectly capture what it's like to be around your first crush. They're uneasy around each other, but they both know in their hearts how strongly they feel for the other. When the two are onscreen together—especially in the first half-hour or so—the film works, quite well. But once the focus shifts to the monster on the loose, everything goes off the deep end.
The special effects are impressive but felt totally overdone. Take the train derailment: Though I don't doubt a speeding car and a speeding train colliding head-on would cause a big wreck, I'm not sure the perfect way the shards of metal come crashing to the ground is realistic or necessary. Then, there's the monster. At least we really see it, unlike Abrams' other big monster movie, Cloverfield. But it's still pretty lame, especially the way it's treated near the film's conclusion.
The ending is a disaster. Somewhere around the halfway point, we stop caring about any of the characters, so the big spectacle that is the film's conclusion feels like all bang and no buck. Then, Abrams piles on the sappy sentimentality that we expect from a Spielberg production, but in films like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and A.I., we actually feel an emotional investment, so these scenes are acceptable. In Super 8, they're laughable.
I could go on and on about the plot holes and the sloppy writing, but that would mean spoilers, and I think it's probably best to go into Super 8 knowing as little as possible, if that is, you decide to see it at all. I can't say I encourage you to do so because the overall experience is wholly unsatisfying and actually left me in a sour mood. How could the director of Star Trek let something like this happen? How could the mastermind of LOST, let me down so much? Perhaps expectations were too high, but when a director doesn't show any restraint and let's his feelings get in the way of a good story, a disaster is bound to happen. I wouldn't quite go so far as to say Super 8 is a disaster, but it's close, and it's definitely the year's biggest disappointment.