Dir. J.J. Abrams. USA. 2011.

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Running off the rails

J.J. Abrams and some of his friends used to make Super 8 horror movies back in 1979 when he was 14. Then he grew up and became a movie director and things became more complicated. He was co-creator of the TV series Lost and made a Star Trek sequel. Things also become (rapidly) more complicated in Abrams' movie, Super 8. A group of boys in 1979 are making a Super 8 horror movie. They're shooting a scene at a railway station, when they witness a very bizarre train accident. Then everything gets very, very much out of hand, for the kids and for viewers. The movie about kids making a makeshift horror movie turns into a movie about aliens, the Air Force, Area 51, hidden government secrets. A film that at first seems like a charming little nostalgia piece -- except that it's such an obvious ripoff of the style and subject matter of Steven Spielberg, who produced, with borrowings from various other filmmakers -- turns into a merely moderately entertaining, not particularly original blockbuster. The director's original intention, to make a movie about kids making movies on an archaic video format in the late Seventies, got Lost.

It seems things all went wrong at the railway station with that big train wreck. It's hard not to see that bumpy, drawn-out crash as derailing the story. The idea of a real event intruding into teenagers' crude fiction is a good one. "Production values!" shouts the boys' director, Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths), when the train approaches. Their values up to then consist of makeup and fake blood. It seems an unexpected godsend to shoot in a train station with a real train going by. Then they get much more than they bargained for when a vehicle heads onto the tracks.

It's the intrusion of "reality." Only it's really not that. It's more like the intrusion into the sweet, nostalgic fiction of a schlockier, noisier, more emotionally incoherent blockbuster CGI 21st-century fiction that it's harder to follow or to care about. After a while Super 8 almost loses track of its appealing little motley crew of boys, one of whom, Charles' co-director Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), is the son of the town's deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler) and is also in love with Alice (Elle Fanning), their movie's female cast member, a winsome waif from the wrong side of the tracks. There's also Martin (Gabriel Basso), the kid movie's more grown-up looking male lead, and the sparky Carey, (Ryan Lee), who likes to set fire to things and blow them up. Another little actor-boy is Zach Mills, as Preston. This motley crew of typically variously sized and shaped boys are defined within their various families. Notably Joe has recently lost his mother, a trauma neither he nor his cop father Jackson Lamb has yet come to terms with. And the sweet Alice has a drunken, hostile dad (Ron Eldard) who is seriously at odds with Joe's dad. These plot details don't get lost. They get tidily resolved. But the casualty of the movie's trajectory is the nostalgia of kids making a movie on a now-archaic film format, of having an activity that draws out far more of their passion than anything at school; of cinephilia, of the joy of creativity and make-believe. That's a good subject, and Abrams knew it was when he started out. Unfortunately, Hollywood loves to jazz things up. And the main way it does that is with explosions and monsters and CGI.

In an interview Abrams has said that when it comes to aliens, "everything has been done." I don't think that comes close to being true, but that mindset explains, I guess, for him, why Super 8's monsters look so much like the monsters in District 9, or a dozen other movies. So, his big close-up monster moment reveals the giant creature to have a sensitive face, and Joe, the movie's emoter, can communicate with it. But so what? If these critters are so sad and sweet inside, how come they have to destroy an entire town in order to leave it? This "human alien" aspect is lost in the triteness and repetitiousness of the material by this point, which is derivative from so many different sources it's hardly worth mentioning them. These include bits from Jaws and Close Encounters and War of the Worlds, while the personal drama's cute adolescent stuff has echoes of E.T., Poltergeist and The Goonies. Armond White, who lists these borrowings, argues that while Spielberg himself is a humanistic film master, the movies he's produced for the most part "simply stink," and Abrams' Super 8 is a cheapening of the Spielberg style that's enough to make Spielberg's haters say "I told you so." After the loving nostalgia of the way the adolescent filmmaking and the wonderfully dated paraphernalia of the Seventies are recreated in Super 8's opening sequences, it's hard to see this movie as anything but a missed opportunity, the abandonment of a dream in the interests of big box office.

Chris Knipp

Copyright © by
Chris Knipp

Also see Howard Schumann's review of Super 8.
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