Super 8 (2011)
When you see the names of such cinematic luminaries as Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams together on the same movie poster, naturally your expectations are going to be high. Yet when watching the various trailers for Super 8, just prior to its release in 2011, I was somewhat cautious. I have discussed in the past at some length the ambiguous nature of trailers and that they can misrepresent a film. Yet even bearing this in mind at the time, I couldn’t help but feel that Super 8 seemed like a somewhat self-indulgent homage to Spielberg's earlier work. I subsequently saw the movie at the cinema in August that year and my suspicions were validated. However, over time I have spoken to several friends who are advocates of the movie, so I thought I’d watch it a second time. Sadly, I still find myself unable to label Super 8 as anything else other than adequate. Now I would hasten to add, that I use adequate within the context of both director’s body of work. An adequate film from either Mr Spielberg or Abrams is still superior to many of their competitors. But that's not the point. I simply expected better from such a project.
Super 8 is not a pure monster movie or creature feature. The alien aspect to the film is nothing more than a secondary plot device. This film is mainly about growing up in the seventies, adolescence and bereavement. A lot is done to try and recapture the look and feel of the decade, yet despite the production design and the cultural references, such as period music, CB radio and the use of period slang, the film doesn't quite work. Why? Because the central characters, although steeped in the superficial trappings of the time are a little bit too worldly, articulate, sensitive and thoughtful. They display to many modern sensibilities and concerns. Rather than producing an accurate portrayal of life at the times, Super 8 is very much Abrams homage to the era. And like most odes to a bygone era it paints a sentimental picture, rather than a credible one. That’s not to say that it is bad. It is simply unauthentic.
Don't get me wrong, the central characters played by Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths and Elle Fanning, are very likeable. Too many movies churn out stereotypical depictions of children or go the opposite way and place them on pedestals. Super 8 features some amusing banter of the sort that kids of this era would have. All the actors involved give good performances. But they all seem a little too perfect, coming across more as archetypes rather than fully rounded characters. I am of a comparable age to J.J Abrams and my childhood was nowhere near as socially complex as that depicted in the movie. Nor were my friends overburdened with such talent or driven by such focused aspiration. What we have in Super 8 is very much an adult’s intellectual deconstruction of childhood, rather than a reflection of it. The boisterous shouting of The Goonies or the smart alec antics of The Monster Squad ring far truer to me.
However, looking beyond this tonal stumbling block, there are some very enjoyable cinematic references in Super 8, many of which seem to be from Mr Spielberg’s back catalogue. For example, a cars electrical system fails at a critical moment, only to come back on with a jolt. Then there's the iconic imagery of kids cycling round idyllic suburban neighbourhoods, free from parental control or interference. There are also subtle nods to films such as John Carpenter’s The Thing with electrical items vanishing, possibly to be utilised by the alien for some makeshift vehicle. There's also a nice theme that's developed in which all the local dogs flee the area. For me, it's these little creative anecdotes that if expanded upon would have given the movie more character and depth.
Yet director Abrams is content to leave these aspects unexplored, in favour of his child centric narrative. As this is the central theme of the film, I can understand why the adult characters are a lot less developed and given less screen time. As a plot device it actually strengthens the under lying theme of the lack of connection between father and son. However, Super 8 falls down quite considerably with regard to its lead villain, Airforce Colonel Nelec played by Noah Emmerich. He is purely arbitrary and denoted as evil purely by his military association and his penchant for killing people by lethal injection. Bad guys are often far more interesting than the virtuous heroes and it's a shame that we do not find out more about him in this instance.
J.J. Abrams has a strong visual sense, very much like Spielberg. There are some very clever images woven into Super 8 over its two-hour running time. The tanks driving through the children's playground for instance and the use of silhouettes. Michael Giacchino's score is very strong and underpins rather than overwhelms the proceedings. There is much to like about the film and if you are not disposed to be as analytical as I am, you will be entertained. But if it had broadened its remit and shied away from the perennial Hollywood trope of canonising beautiful, yet deceased mothers, it could have been a far more rewarding film. A more honest and less emotional depiction of the times, as well as a little more focus on characters and motive would have improved things greatly.