By: Addison Wylie
A Science-Fiction film helmed by Steven Spielberg and J.J Abrams is a great idea. On one side of the scale, we have a Director who has dabbled in the genre many times. Spielberg has produced and directed creepy and eerie films that deal with the supernatural and he’s made films directed towards young audiences that deal with similar fantastical content.
On the other side of that same scale, we have an extremely creative mind that has been put to good use behind movies and long running television shows. Abrams is able to tease his audience successfully. Movie goers never feel cheated when we see little pieces of an unknown terrorizing figure; leading up to a reveal at some point. By showing us minor physical characteristics through somewhat transparent items or between quick camera jolts, the audience is able to paint a picture of what the “villain” might be.
On this scale, we have two very powerful voices. Everything should balance out and the film should be flawless. However, this isn’t the case. Super 8 is a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but something seems unbalanced about the overall product. It doesn’t feel like a co-operative production or even a J.J Abrams film. It actually feels as if there’s more Spielberg input than Abrams directorial eye.
The film follows a group of young boys who have a strong friendship. No one is necessarily the leader of this group but Charles is most certainly the one with the most drive. Charles, played by Riley Griffiths, is a filmmaker who is determined to finish his Horror film in order to make a deadline and enter it in the local film festival. He gets his friends to star in his films and some even get to maintain double tasks as the crew. Cary, played by Ryan Lee, is usually in charge of the cinematography and pyrotechnics, Martin and Preston, played by Gabriel Basso and Zach Mills, are the go-to actors, and Joe, played by Joel Courtney, is the boom operator who occasionally acts.
Joe finds hanging out with his friends relaxing; mostly because of a terrible accident that took his Mother’s life. Grieving, Joe hangs onto his Mother’s locket and thinks of her every day while his Father, played by Kyle Chandler, deals with the emotional pain as well.
One night, while the boys are shooting a scene for the movie starring a new female actress named Alice Dainard, played by Elle Fanning, a horrific crash occurs nearby involving a train collision. Because the friends have snuck out secretly to shoot footage, the youngsters swear to tell no one about the crash. Soon enough though, the news covers the crash and the whole town wonders what caused it. As the nights roll on by, mysterious things start happening. Dogs and people are disappearing and vandalism begins to be a daily problem. Are these mysterious happenings linked to the train crash? Maybe, the young filmmakers caught something on tape that could help solve this strange mystery.
The film is dedicated to its time period without Abrams beating us over the head and constantly reminding us this is a period piece. Production Designer Martin Whist, Set Decorator Fainche MacCarthy, and Costume Designer Ha Nguyen have done a terrific job capturing 1979 and throwing their audience into that environment. Because Abrams never calls attention to Whist, MacCarthy, and Nguyen’s work, the designs feel very natural and authentic. Even when Abrams is incorporating major action scenes with the help of his visual effects team and his stunt team, the film still fits that time period. Aside from the “mysterious creature”, the explosions and the peril never remind us that this is a recent film using modern special effects.
I do have minor quibbles in regards to the action scenes; which ties into another problem I have with Super 8. Super 8 may have its audience engrossed throughout its duration, but afterwards, movie goers will think back to memorable scenes and begin questioning certain elements.
The action scenes are visually gorgeous and offer a frightening, catastrophic view in this seemingly harmless suburban environment. Though they may be pretty to look at, some scenes are problematic. For instance, during the train crash, the kids are running through an open field trying to get away from the fire and flying debris. As the kids flee, deadly shrapnel starts falling all around them and nothing is hitting any of these characters. Sure, afterwards they’re covered in dirt and soot, but these friends manage to dodge every piece of sharp metal that is flying in every direction.
Now, I’m not asking to see children injured. In fact, that wouldn’t fit the tone of the movie. However, all I ask for is a bit of common sense. If the kids were scared and frantic, wouldn’t they dive for the first piece of shelter they see? That said, if the filmmakers went in that direction, the scene may not have given off a dangerous vibe in order to get the audiences on the edge of their seats. However, it wouldn’t have been a distracting element.
This happens a couple of times. Chaos is breaking out around these youngsters and they’re able to miraculously dash to safety. This may happen a lot because the film is aimed towards a younger audience and Abrams and Spielberg don’t want to harm their adolescent leads. There is one time where the group is caught off guard by an explosion and they are taken down abruptly. We see one of the boys on the ground holding his leg. He is then looked after but we never find out what state his leg is in. Again, Spielberg and Abrams are keeping their target demographic in mind but meanwhile, everyone else (or at least me) is questioning as to why these kids are borderline invincible.
I don’t usually nitpick either during movies but given the amount of authenticity that was apparent in the settings, the acting, and the props, these action movie flaws stick out like sore thumbs. These quibbles even go outside the explosive peril. At one point, a lead character knocks out another person to put on their clothes. Coincidentally, the clothes fit perfectly. See what I mean?
Let’s go back to my hokey scale idea. The reason as to why I feel this is more of a Spielberg production is because the project is catered to Spielberg. It feels as if Abrams has been a long time fan of Spielberg’s supernatural filmography. In fact, the film feels like a Thank You card to Steven Spielberg. Abrams, who has also penned the screenplay, wants to show his affection for those influential films. For example, the camaraderie among the young cast reminded me of exchanges in The Goonies; when the group of treasure hunters would discuss about One-Eyed Willy and the whereabouts of his sunken gold.
Paying homage to your favourite films is not a problem (Quentin Tarantino has shown us how to do this properly and how one can get too wrapped up in the references), however, there is a point where the nods become too aggressive. In Super 8, when the friends were talking over each other constantly, it really felt as if Abrams was trying too hard to capture that innocence among children during intense situations that was found in The Goonies or Stand By Me (not a Steven Spielberg film but a strong influence in this predicament).
Because Steven Spielberg is credited as a Producer, it’s understandable that he’d want to add his input and make suggestions as to how the action should be shot or choreographed and how heartstrings should be pulled during emotional scenes. Spielberg has always been a master at weaving sentimentality in his most surreal products. The actors he and Abrams have been given do a very good job at portraying these heartbreaking emotions. The scenes between Fanning and Courtney are especially cute. The two actors may not have a lot of experience but they shouldn’t be judged on that; they emote extremely well.
Lately, Spielberg has been known to occasionally overdo it regarding the sentimentality. Here, it’s especially shown during the last 20 minutes or so. I don’t want to give too much away regarding the last third, but many portions of that last act feel very sappy.
I didn’t expect to write this much about Super 8; which I suppose is a positive note and a negative one. Readers viewing this will hopefully be able to see that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and was entertained throughout aside from the detail nitpicks. I don’t think the film is outstanding but it definitely had the chance to go above and beyond. Maybe, if Abrams pulled back on some of those nods towards other films, Super 8 wouldn’t have felt as forced and would’ve risen in originality.
If the pair were to work together again in the future, I would not be opposed. After Super 8, Spielberg knows Abrams loves him; Abrams knows Spielberg loves him back. Now, let’s leave these two talented filmmakers to make their next movie that I’m sure will be “Mint”.