J.J. Abrams’s new movie Super 8 desperately wants you to think that it’s a Steven Spielberg film, with its overpowering sense of childlike wonder, kids on bicycles and government spooks ruining everything in small town America. But it’s not a Steven Spielberg film. It’s a Dawson Leery film. As I watched Super 8 unfold across the screen I couldn’t shake the feeling that James Van Der Beek’s Spielberg-obsessed protagonist from Dawson’s Creek finally got the green light for his dream project and, like Peter Jackson’s King Kong before it, spent more time aping the films he idolized as a youth than actually contributing anything new or interesting to the world at large. And like Peter Jackson’s King Kong it’s still a pretty good movie. Even though the result is like being told a great story secondhand, that story remains perfectly sound.
Young Joel Courtney stars as Joel Lamb, a typical Midwestern kid whose mother recently died in an on the job accident at ‘the plant,’ where everyone in the Midwest usually works. He spends his free time helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffith) make a short film on Super 8 film stock for an upcoming film festival. In a desperate search for ‘production value’ (a legitimate concern, actually), Charles enlists Joel and the rest of his tiny crew – including Alice, played by Elle Fanning, the object of all the male protagonists’ affection – to a railroad station in the middle of the night where they witness, and inadvertently film, a spectacular train crash caused by their high school science teacher, Dr. Woodward, played by Glynn Turman of Gremlins fame. Dr. Woodward points a gun at the boys and tells them to keep their mouths shut or the government will kill them and their families. It’s kind of a dramatic night for everyone involved, even after the kids stop shooting their little drama with zombies in it.
The advertising campaign keeps the real meat of Super 8 a secret, which isn’t so much a marketing ploy as an accurate representation of the film itself. Writer/director J.J. Abrams keeps the mysterious cargo of the train mysterious as long as he can, shooting what appear to be giant monster attacks with what counts for subtlety these days, keeping the alien – or whatever it is – and its motivations a secret as long as possible. Meanwhile, all the electronics in town go missing, all the family pets run away to the next county and Joel’s father (King Kong’s Kyle Chandler) is promoted to Sheriff after his predecessor vanishes in a spectacular gas station ‘incident.’ The Truman Show’s Noah Emmerich is also on hand as Nelec, an Air Force officer with all the answers and no desire whatsoever to share them with anybody.
All the disappearing gadgets in town is pretty fitting, if you think about it, because Super 8 is all about the mechanics. Abrams’s film is most certainly a genre piece, recycling conventions from the (alas) long-lost children’s fantasy genre of the 1980’s, which brought forth such classics as E.T., The Explorers, Monster Squad and The Last Starfighter. Lots of newer movies incorporate elements of that genre, including wisecracking kids, troubled parents and the threat of unthinkable danger that only the young target audience can face because they aren’t jaded enough to disbelieve it. Abrams wisely realizes that the sense of wonder wasn’t a by-product of these narrative elements, but a genuine emotion that only the filmmaker can provide. Abrams is good at evoking that emotion through memorable angles, tear-streaked children and Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score, but it feels more like a calculated attempt to replicate that wonder than a real expression of his own inner child. All the mystique and lens flare in the world (and make no mistake, all the lens flare in the world definitely makes an appearance) can’t quite hide the fact that Super 8 is – despite a smart script, beautiful score and mostly superior cast (particularly Elle Fanning, who is destined to become the first crush of many a pubescent boy) – merely the work of an exceptional filmmaker, trying a little too hard to be a very different exceptional filmmaker. J.J. Abrams makes a fine J.J. Abrams, but Steven Spielberg he is not… nor should he be.
Super 8 is an incredibly entertaining film, but it never achieves its own greatness because it’s trying so hard to achieve somebody else’s. It’s a beautiful homage to a beautiful era and on those merits alone it’s a worthy piece, and yet it’s frustrating that the only ‘original’ blockbuster this summer season has no interest whatsoever in originality. But like NBC used to say, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.” I suspect an entire generation of wide-eyed youngsters will see Super 8 and cherish it deeply as one of the only films in this day and age made with their best interests at heart. Their interests in smart entertainment, at least.
Crave Online Rating: 7.5/10