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Super 8 - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Super 8
Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+
Special Effects: B+

Super 8 is fun for what it is, which is not quite all that it's cracked up to be. Critics seem to be revering it largely because it's so different from the most overtly recycled ideas in the summer multiplex: it's not a superhero movie or a sequel or part of a franchise. These facts seem to be blinding a lot of people to the fact that it's still full of ideas that have been recycled hundreds of times over. Granted, just about every movie is if you look closely enough, and generally this one at the very least does an entertaining job of it.

But it does over-reach a little. The marketing campaign for this film has made just as much of Steven Spielberg as an executive producer as it has of J.J. Abrams as the director; and media coverage has been fairly relentless about how Abrams is clearly trying to evoke the tone of early Spielberg films. This is part of the pull, and I'll freely admit I got sucked into it. Who wouldn't want to revisit the wide-eyed wonder and innocence of films like E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind?

The problem is that not even setting Super 8 in the late seventies changes the fact that we simply live in a different time, one that frankly doesn't allow for the same kind of effect those early Spielberg films had. What's more, Abrams is not as adept as we've been led to believe (whether by his choice or not) at making an homage to such films. He gets a lot of it right: the suburban setting; the alienated single-parent children. But at its heart, Super 8 is still a J.J. Abrams film, a bit more Cloverfield than E.T., and that's both good and bad.

The bad is that when Abrams lays on the sentimentality, he really lays it on thick. This is something he didn't even bother with in Cloverfield, instead opting for characters that were all vapid twenty-somethings we were happy to see get eaten by this American version of Godzilla. In trying to rectify that and infuse the story with heart, he goes overboard: young Joe (Joel Courtney) is grieving the loss of his mother, who died in a factory accident, and now has a single father (Kyle Chandler) who doesn't know how to relate to him. If that weren't enough, the girl Joe likes, Alice (an exceptional Elle Fanning, always natural rather than displaying that vaguely Children of the Corn precociousness of her sister), also has a single parent (Ron Eldard) -- evidently an alcoholic who drove Alice's mother away. And Alice's dad has a sad connection to the death of Joe's mother, which fills Joe's dad with spitting venom toward him.

This is the emotional context in which the story is presented, and it has far less resonance than its supposed importance to the story would suggest. In Spielberg films like E.T. or Jaws, the characters also had their emotional issues, but Spielberg would present them and then step back and let them speak for themselves. (Granted, even he laid that stuff on a little thick in later films; see the ridiculous estranged-father-son-reunion at the end of 2005's War of the Worlds.)

All this happens at the same time that Joe and his group of friends are making an amateur zombie movie using a Super 8 camera (a well-documented youthful pastime of both Abrams and Spielberg). Joe's friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is acting as the high-strung director, and when they are shooting at a train station, he's thrilled to see a train coming and quickly sets up to shoot a scene as it passes by. Except that a truck comes rushing down the road and onto the tracks, causing one of the most spectacular train derailments ever put on film. The camera, still rolling, is knocked over and gets some astonishing footage while the kids are running for their lives.

Given the name of the film, it's surprising how little that footage actually plays into the story in the end. And given the nature of this jaw-dropping crash, it's borderline distracting how very little trauma the kids seem to suffer from it. They find the truck driver near death, brandishing a gun, admonishing them not to tell anyone what they saw or else they will die -- and then the kids carry on with secrecy as their primary concern, but the fact that they just nearly got killed already is apparently not really an issue.

There's a difference between plausibility and believability, and audiences usually make an unspoken pact with movies like this that plausibility just isn't going to be part of the equation. Believability is another story, especially when a film is trying so hard to engender an emotional connection. There are sequences in Super 8 that are edge-of-your-seat riveting; but then others come along that elicit a reaction more like, Okay, whatever.

In fact, one of the more surprising things about Super 8 is its subtle similarities to films by M. Night Shyamalan -- which is not to its betterment. There's a scene near the end that brings to mind that embarrassing "Swing away" moment in Signs, that forced-emotional moment that serves as the pivotal point in the plot but nearly derails the entire movie. At least this time the alien is far more convincingly rendered.

What's more, and this is in stark contrast to the early Spielberg films he's trying to emulate, Abrams wastes no time not just getting to the action, but cluttering the movie with action. This forces the story aspect into secondary status, and as a result, the moments that come to what is ultimately a failed attempt at character development (there's certainly no time allowed for nuance) just feel that much more forced. You almost want to shout, "Okay, Joe loved his mom, we get it!"

Admittedly, I did tear up a bit in one emotional scene, but that's just because I'm a sentimental crybaby. That alone doesn't make the movie great. Any hack can manipulate an audience. J.J. Abrams is no hack (Star Trek proved that, if nothing else), but he could stand to either collaborate or delegate the script writing to someone else. He found a great group of kids to play Joe and his friends, and the dialogue he wrote for them is often charming, funny, and realistic. But their relationships with the adults never quite ring truer than the vast majority of Hollywood tripe, leaving us to thrill instead at the mysterious creature wreaking havoc on their town. In that sense, Super 8 resembles the popcorn it's designed to have you compulsively eating: buttery all over, but packing a wallop without much substance.

Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney try to make sense of what they&apos;re seeing in &apos;Super 8&apos;.</a>

Overall: B
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