Timmy Fell Down the Well?

Super 8 ★★★
(USA, 112 min.)
Written and directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Elle Fanning, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Bosso, Kyle Chandler, Noah Emmerich.
Super 8 sounds like a match made in movie heaven. In the director’s chair is J.J. Abrams, helmer of the solid Star Trek reboot and the electrifying Cloverfield, which took the tried and tested Godzilla-style attack and turned it into something new by shooting it through the point of view of a handheld digital camera. Adding extra credit and awe to Super 8 is producer Steven Spielberg. One could call Spielberg the granddaddy of the summer movie extravaganza: not only did he deliver the first official blockbuster of all-time – Jaws – but he also made the entrancing extraterrestrial film ET, a film whose endearing charm still resonates with audiences today. Considering that Super 8 is a big screen adventure that puts at its heart a child’s fascination with the magic of movies, then why doesn’t the dream team combination of Abrams and Spielberg yield a more satisfactory result?

The fanciful creature-feature begins with the creation of its own monster movie. Joe (Joel Courtney) and his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) are making a zombie movie for their school film festival. It’s 1979, so the boys are shooting their film on Charles’s handy super 8 camera. With Charles in the director seat, as well as their friends Cary (Ryan Lee) and Martin (Gabriel Bosso from “The Big C”) on board, the film is sure to have a great plot and even greater production value. There’s only one thing missing – heart.

Enter Alice (Elle Fanning). Not only can she serve as the unlicensed driver for the crew, but also she provides the perfect lead to grant the film a compelling love story. One night, Alice and the boys drive out to the old train station for some night-time shooting, and the gang winds up with some phenomenal unrehearsed footage. During their take, a train goes past. Charles sees the opportunity for prime production value, and he insists the camera keeps rolling; however, a freak accident sends the train flying off the rails, and the friends find themselves in the midst of a cinematic catastrophe.
After the wreck, things become strange in the small town of Lillian. Dogs run away; microwaves disappear; and Joe finds himself smitten with Alice. Their summer fling only creates unneeded anxiety for Joe’s dad (Kyle Chandler), as some negligence by Alice’s drunkard father inadvertently led to the death of Joe’s mother only months before; moreover, Joe’s dad is the town deputy, and it’s up to him to see beyond the smokescreen put out by the US military in order to control the situation.
Does it sound like a lot is going on in Super 8? Indeed it does. Despite the epic scope of the film, it succumbs to an unnecessary narrative sprawl. Complications pile up more rapidly than dead bodies do in an Asian horror film, and they all appear so coincidentally and wrap-up so conveniently that Super 8 feels ridiculously hokey. The situations come across as extra hackneyed because Abrams’ script plays them out with dialogue so clichéd it could be ripped from an old episode of Lassie. (At least it sounds better than the overbearing score by Michael Giacchino.) Thankfully, though, Abrams forgoes the nauseating Blair Witch aesthetic of Cloverfield and shoots Super 8 in a more conventional manner. Abrams also refrains from using Charles’s super 8 footage far less than one expects he would after the success of Cloverfield, and Abrams’ restraint is therefore one of the better ways that he keeps the audience engaged.

Oddly enough, Abrams’ film lacks the same ingredient sought by Charles. There’s little heart to Super 8, in spite of the credible tales of young love and child’s play. It’s simply a cold movie. At times, Abrams forgoes the playful nature of the film and favours pop-out surprises and campy violence. The chills seem oddly out of place, and the whole of Super 8 just feels unbalanced. While Super 8 seems geared towards a younger audience, the appearances of the monster might scare the living daylights out of them (the film also has enough cuss words to earn The King’s Speech an R-rating). It seems that the movie-within-a-movie made by Charles has stronger dexterity in its combination blood and passion.
It is, however, impossible to dismiss the effort completely. Super 8 features such spectacular special effects that one could not deny the film a recommendation. The work on the sound and the visuals of Super 8 is surely among the best technical wizardry of the year so far. Add to that the spirited efforts by the young cast members – especially Fanning – and Super 8 becomes an undeniably good film, despite the fact that it’s hardly the sum of its parts.
There is one remainder in the equation that is worth consideration. Spielberg’s producing credit draws attention to all that is lacking in Super 8. Going into the film, one expects the wonder of Jaws, ET, Close Encounters or Jurassic Park; however, Abrams’ film is hardly the well-layered opus of imagination that makes Spielberg’s mega-hits such enduring classics. In a Spielberg-directed film, one receives an equal dose of solid production values, but the films also have greater effort in story, character, and substance. What makes his films so enchanting is the sense that their magic could happen in everyday life. Perhaps if Spielberg and Abrams had switched roles, Super 8 might have fully achieved its potential.