The Culture Beat

June 13, 2011

Movie Review: Super 8

Filed under: Movies — Alex @ 1:46 pm

J. J. Abrams newest film has been widely publicized as an homage to Steven Spielberg’s early science fiction films that made the director’s reputation for startlingly original evocations of benevolent visitors from the stars with humans, children and adult, gazing in awe and amazement at the cosmic wonders shining before them. Super 8 in many ways attains to these signature ingredients, yet lacks the magic that distinguished Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.

Co-produced by Spielberg himself, the story marries the film geekdom that formed the teen years of both filmmakers to the plot involving a small group of teens shooting a zombie movie with the director’s Super 8 millimeter camera. One night, having sneaked out to shoot at the old train station, they witness the horrendous crash of a freight train followed by the loud pounding sounds of something breaking out of one of the cars. This much you may know from the circumspect trailers, and I will try to refer only generally to the plot but it won’t be entirely spoiler-free. Joe Lamb, who’s part of the film crew has lost his mother in a terrible factory accident four months earlier and his silently grieving deputy sheriff father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler) can barely handle being the sole parent and Joe receives the brunt of his emotional preoccupation. Joe is sweet on Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), who’s agreed to play a role in their movie and their scene when Joe’s applying Alice’s make-up is one of the best falling-in-love teen scenes in recent memory. Like Joe, Alice has father issues as well, a recurrent theme in Abrams’ work (Star Trek, Lost). The young actors, diverse in characterizations (like The Goonies, another Spielberg production), are the heart of the film and the closest approximation to the Spielbergian formula. My son said afterward that the film was like Stand By Me meets Cloverfield and that captures the youthful dynamic Abrams achieves.

It may surprise no one that there is indeed a scary creature on board and that a government entity, the Air Force in this case, is trying to contain discovery of said creature, led by a domineering officer played by Noah Emmerich, going to nasty lengths to cover up any evidence. This is when the film starting feeling more derivative than inspired-how many times have we seen this? As the plot crescendos to a climax, at a certain point (okay, seeing the creature upclose) I finally found myself less inside the movie and instead comparing it to Abrams’ last creature feature, Cloverfield, whose monster appears to be a distant relative. At the end as both the action plot and characters arcs converge on and above the streets of the town and the shocked citizens gaze upward, though the plot wrapped itself up neatly, I felt none of the astonishment or heartbreak the master himself brought to his films of his youth, just a sincere checking off of all the components needed to make a heartfelt, entertaining but less than equal accomplishment honoring the films that inspired Super 8. It’s hard but to say what was missing but John Williams music comes to mind–think what a difference it made in Encounters and E.T., but I don’t blame the composer, Michael Giacchino, one of Williams’ true successors; the screenplay didn’t have the passionate themes of those films to play to musically. If I was giving it stars, it would be 3 out of 4. Added value for the closing credits sequence so don’t rush off afterwards.



  1. I thought the closing credits were the best part of the whole experience. Of course, you have to watch the whole movie to “get” it.

    I agree with your assessment, Dr. Wainer. There were parts, especially during the train crash, that I thought to myself, “This is why you should go to movie theaters to watch movies. It doesn’t get any better than this.” The end, however, felt forced and manipulative. Encounters and ET simply flowed. Unlike ET, I felt no emotional connection to the alien. As you said, it started to feel like a list being checked off.

    That being said, it was definitely worth the ticket price I paid. And since we don’t have much extra money to spend on luxuries like going to the movies, that’s saying a lot to me! 😀

    Comment by mattdantodd — June 14, 2011 @ 9:55 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for your insightful comments. I’m not sorry I saw it, but at a certain point, I was pulled out of the picture.
    I’m not sure what your name is based on the e-mail address. Tell me more about yourself; have you been reading the blog for long?

    Comment by Alex — June 15, 2011 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

    • I was a student of yours at Milligan. I think your first year there was my Senior year. You introduced me to Francis Schaeffer in the film criticism class and it rocked my world.

      I think our class went to the Star Wars re-release together. It’s kind of difficult for me to remember because…well…I saw it multiple times. 😀

      I’ve been reading your blog off and on shortly after its inception (I think).

      Comment by mattdantodd — June 15, 2011 @ 8:21 pm | Reply

      • Meant to include my blog address. That might help.

        I really don’t expect you to remember me. It has been nearly 15 years, after all!

        Comment by mattdantodd — June 15, 2011 @ 8:22 pm

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