Super 8 is kind of… underwhelming

26 Jun

Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney

I know. That sounds very harsh. But I expect a great deal from J.J. Abrams (Fringe, Lost, Alias, Felicity). I don’t expect as much from Steven Spielberg. You see, I see Steven Spielberg as an expert manipulator of emotions. This started with Jaws when I was six years old and had to sit with my feet up on the seat in the Country Squire Movie Theater that has thankfully been torn down now. I begged my father to take me to go see Jaws. I don’t know what got into me because I was afraid of scary things but I was convinced I’d love this movie. My father kept saying no. So, at six years old, I went to the local library, read articles on the making of Jaws (yes, I actually did) and explained to my father that I knew the shark was a mechanical replica and I would not get scared as I would keep this in mind during the entire film. So, my father was so impressed that I did research at six years old, he rewarded me by taking me. I was fine until the first shark attack of the naked skinny dipper and then I wanted to leave. Unfortunately, my father was hooked. I was stuck watching that film, my feet tucked under me on my very uncomfortable theater seat from the 1950s and by the end of the night, I had developed a terror of even getting into the bathtub. It took me a year to get comfortable thinking about even swimming in lakes. So yes, Spielberg did his job a bit too well. As I got older, I went to all his other films. My friends wanted to see his films but I never trusted him again. I watched his films with a critical eye and discovered that his talent was manipulating the audiences emotions. Ok, yes that’s a talent but I don’t need to pay money to have a guy manipulate my emotions. I can get that for free any time I like. Seriously, that’s like paying money for a prostitute.

Fast forward to Super 8 in 2011.  Super 8 is one of those films that if you don’t think about it too much or expect too much, you might enjoy it.  I actually wanted to see the film.  I was intrigued but as soon as it started, the tone felt off.  It’s a bit too scary to be E.T.  It can’t decide whether it wants to be horror/science fiction, a coming of age story or a summer blockbuster (that seems to have its own genre after about thirty odd years of the ‘summer blockbuster’ film).  The characters are stereotypical.  Not one of them, not even the protagonist, Joe, possess any ‘real’ special quality.  Every lead character needs something ‘special’ in a summer blockbuster, or an aspiring one.  I don’t see it in Joe, not because of the acting, because of the way the character was written.  The most disappointing factor about this film is that nothing about it was fresh.  It reminded me of watching SNL skits of Spielberg films from the 1970s and 1980s.  At least with the SNL angle, I would have been entertained.

[Spoiler alert:  I will discuss certain plot points so don’t read any further unless you don’t mind knowing what will happen in places.]  We learn that Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) lost his mother in an industrial accident.  This is important as I like to think of Joe Lamb as a growing crop of characters who are regular kids that somehow attain a level of superhero status (think Kick-Ass, one of my favorites) and if one follows the laws of superheroes, they always lose one or both of their parents.  Or someone like a parent.  So Joe loses his mom and is left with his dad, or his step-dad.  I found it kind of hard to tell the way the dialogue went.  Either way, we are meant to see that this father and son have a slightly estranged relationship for no clear reason.  The dad is distant?  Surely there could have been a better backstory here.  The point is, Joe must battle through his personal demons and external melodramatic forces to experience a cathartic release and grow from the trauma of his mother’s death.  And yes, that happens.  In fact, Joel Courtney and all the other teen actors do a great job.  My criticism isn’t with them.  And yes, the narrative pretty much works but there is just something missing from this picture.  There doesn’t seem to be a soul to it.  It feels as if this film was conceived as a summer blockbuster, not a movie about a boy overcoming great odds, falling in love for the first time and battling an alien while helping his best friend make a zombie film.

Ah, the zombie film.  The ‘film within a film.’  And the subject matter, the living dead, is too pointedly commented upon at Joe’s mother’s wake.  His friends are making a zombie movie (the only truly bright spot in the film) and Joe is a fx makeup wizard for a young teen boy.  Yeah, sure, ok, I’ll go with it but come on, I don’t really believe he’s that good.  Maybe if he were 25, but not 13-ish.  So Joe helps his best-friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths) shoot the zombie film and all is going great until Charles asks Alice (Elle Fanning) to join the cast.  Joe obviously likes Alice.  So does Charles but he won’t admit this until a fight much later on which is just simply ridiculous.  No 13 or 14 year old boy is going to have the insight of a 40 year old man about his feelings for a girl and step aside for his rival that easily.  Mr. Abrams, you seem to sacrifice human nature for plot and narrative.  You should know better!   If the rivalry between the two friends for the affections of Alice isn’t enough (really, it is), Abrams just had to go and complicate things further, pushing the star-crossed lovers angle.  We learn that Alice’s dad is an alcoholic who ignores her and indirectly caused Joe’s mom’s death because she was covering his shift the day she died in the industrial accident.  Really?  Is that all you got?  If you’re going to go that far, I’d like to have seen Alice’s dad directly responsible for Joe’s mom’s death.  Then the character interaction would mean something.

The only truly great moment in this film, besides the zombie film at the end during the credits, is the train wreck that occurs when the kids are filming a scene of the zombie movie.  Yes, it is overdone.  Yes, it goes on a bit too long but honestly, it’s the only thing that made me feel like I got my $14 worth of entertainment.  And I don’t even like scenes like that.  After the train wreck, the movie takes a turn from wounded boy on the emotional mend track to science fiction/horror film track.  This shift in genre isn’t too disjointed but the rest of the film becomes more like an homage to all the old 1980s movies Spielberg made rather than an original film.  And guess what, I didn’t pay $14 to re-watch movies I saw as a teenager, as an adult.  Now, had these moments been improved upon, then maybe I would have been impressed but seriously, once you’ve experienced all that crap as a teenage audience member, it’s just disappointing to have to re-experience it dcades later and see nobody has bothered to improve upon genre or story.

This time we get an alien who is misunderstood (E.T. meets Alien).  And abused by the Air Force.  We even start to feel bad for the alien until we see what he does to the humans he captures.  Yuck.  And honestly after seeing how he feeds it’s difficult to suddenly feel any sympathy and empathy for him whatsoever.  By the time Joe psychically communicates with the alien to help him ‘understand’ and escape, I was ready to torch that fucker with a flame-throwing gun myself.  Then, after all that, let’s just say there is an actual happy ending.  Well, as happy as the ending can be considering part of the town turned into alien food.  But Joe and Alice hold hands so life will now be okay.  I thought I might have to puke after that.  And I like sappy endings.  But not so much after I’ve seen people ripped apart and eaten.

I wanted to like this film.  And I’d say go to the matinee for the train wreck but don’t expect anything original because you might as well go back and watch Speilberg’s 80s films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  At least those were original.  And this is where I believe Super 8 fails.  It’s trying to be a bit of Science Fiction, Horror and coming of age movie.  Can that be done?  Of course it can!  But with Abrams and Spielberg behind the vehicle, I should have been blown away instead of thinking: Seriously?  That’s all they came up with?  Dudes, stop wanking and start actually thinking about the film you made.  You spend millions and millions of dollars for what I would call the movie version of a premature ejaculation.

The best thing about the movie is the $.99 app you can buy on iTunes that allows you to make your own Super 8 films and send them in… somewhere.  Go ahead, I’m sure you’ve got a shot at making a more interesting film than theirs, at a fraction of the price.

Watch my vlog review on YouTube.

You can watch the trailer below:

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