Sunday, June 12, 2011

Movie Review: Super 8

Super 8 (2011)
Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard

This film has been hyped as E.T. meets The Goonies -- and this is precisely one of the biggest problems with Super 8, the big budget blockbuster produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Lost creator, J.J. Abrams. It's trying to be too many things at once and, ultimately, the end result is one big mess of a film.

Set in a fictional Ohio town in 1979, the film opens with the revelation that young Joe (Joel Courtney) has lost his mother in a freak accident at her place of work. Four months later, he's slowly moving on with his life and preparing to enter a kids short film contest with his three best buddies, led by "director" Charles (Riley Griffiths). Using Super 8 technology to film a zombie movie, the boys recruit Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the lone female role in an attempt to add a little emotional depth to the film. Joe and Alice aren't supposed to hang out together, though, as Joe's father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler) blames Alice's father, Louis (Ron Eldard) for his wife's accident. But the two feuding father's are inevitably thrown together when Joe, Alice and their friends witness an epic train crash in the middle of the night and get caught up in the government's cover-up of a really messy, loud, unseen creature.

The first half of Super 8 is enjoyable and holds a lot of potential -- but it just never delivers on the thrills it promises. The film is enveloped in nostalgia and, if nothing else, Abrams paid great attention to detail when it came to the setting and overall atmosphere. It felt like those 1970s Spielberg hits like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And, with the exception of a couple of modern words kids weren't likely saying in 1979 ("douche", anyone?), Super 8 is ultimately an homage to those classic summer blockbusters from back in the day. It would seem that everything would be headed in the right direction for this to be the major hit of the summer. However, Abrams tries to make Super 8 too many different things at once and, unlike Spielberg, he's unable to pull it off successfully.

Chandler, Courtney, Fanning and Eldard in Super 8.
One of the biggest disappointments is the "big reveal" of the creature that is terrorizing this small Ohio town. The whole first half of the film leaves you anxious to find out what exactly this creature wants and what it is capable of. Abrams builds tension by not letting the viewer know what direction the movie is headed in. But, once we hit the halfway mark, all of that goes downhill. Not only are the viewers left knowing very little about the creature, but when you do actually get to see it, you're likely going to wish that you hadn't. It's a combination of really laughable CGI and one of the worst "kid meets creature" scenes you are ever likely to see. Abrams doesn't pull off emotional cheese quite like Spielberg and Super 8 suffers because of it. The whole second half of the film, specifically the final 20 minutes, are painful to watch. The end result is that it's less of an homage to monster flicks and Spielberg epics and more of a major disappointment.

Unlike other uneven Hollywood blockbusters, watching Super 8 steadily decline in quality as the film progresses is harder to watch simply because it had started off with so much potential. There's a really, really great film in there somewhere, but it gets lost and muddled by a script that wants to be too many different things at once.

The strongest feature of the film? The cast. Newcomer Joel Courtney is a wonderfully natural young actor and he's more than capable of carrying the entire film on his tiny shoulders. It's safe to say we'll be seeing more of him in the future. Then there's Elle Fanning, an incredible actress and arguably the best performer under the age of 18 working in Hollywood today. She's all natural grace and charisma and her portrayal of Alice is that of a young woman on the verge of becoming an adult -- she still retains her childlike wonder while channeling her anger, frustration and loss as well as any adult would. The other young child actors are all excellent, especially Riley Griffiths as the bossy and hilarious director of the zombie flick. Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard do the best they can with their two underwritten roles as the father's of the main protagonists (you keep hoping to see more a connection between Jackson and his son, Joe, and Louis and his daughter, Alice). It almost seems like a waste that such a talented group of kids, gifted with great comic timing and emotional maturity, should be wasted on a film like Super 8.

In the end, there are both positive and negative attributes to this summer thriller -- it's just a shame that there is more of the latter. It's just further proof that a solid cast can't save the ill-conceived script of a movie with an identity crisis. It's a mess of M. Night Shyamalan proportions.



  1. As a film-goer who loved this film, I'm insulted that M. Night Shyamalan's name is even mentioned here. In most reviews, including yours, I've noticed so much emphasis on films that aren't "Super 8." I haven't read a single review yet that doesn't mention "The Goonies," "E.T.," "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and/or "Cloverfield" over and over again. Four of those five films were released over twenty-five years ago.

    Walking into the theater, I knew the monster was going to be the weakest aspect of the film. I wasn't interested in the monster, but how the kids would react to it. They delivered from beginning to end, and Joe, in particular, had excellent and subtle character development. If anything, I was disappointed that Jack Lamb didn't have more to do and that Jack and Joe didn't have additional scenes together, notably at the end of the film. A lot of conflict with the creature was subverted by Joe's (and the audience's) understanding of the situation. He's seem monster movies, and so have we. A talent group of kids such as these is rarely assembled in Hollywood. I'm happy to have "Super 8."

  2. Whew!! I'm pleased you weren't impressed!! This has absoltuley disgusted me as I'm sure you are aware. It is nothing but a rehashed Goonies/ET, and I agree as the first part of the movie was OK but once the train crash was over it fell to pieces and just became rubbish. I was totally bored and embarrassed by how bad it got.
    One review I have read has called it 'culture polluting filth'!!! I'm afraid I'm not far off from agreement. I haven't been so anti a movie in years and it has definitely divided opinions. I really can't believe there are those who think this is even a half way decent movie.

  3. I missed it this weekend but plan on going with a group next week. It has not received the grandiose welcoming I anticipated it would, which surprised me a little bit. From what I gather, the monster really does appear to be the worst thing about the film. I'm keeping my hopes high though.

  4. @Brent: Well, I didn't dislike it as much as you did. Clearly. lol. But I think my biggest problem with it was how quickly it collapsed. It tried to do too many things at once. The final 15 minutes was, essentially, an E.T. rehash minus the proper plot development and emotional punch. I like movies that pay homage to other films. This one just didn't quite work for me.

  5. @Edgar: Well, that was exactly the problem with it, in my opinion. It didn't live up to the hype that was surrounding it. I was also surprised by the mixed reviews for it because I thought it was going to be THE big epic of the summer. I figured the monster would be a weak link going into the film, I just didn't expect it to be THAT weak. It started off with a lot of promise and potential and then it just became a really, really average film.

    But I'm interested in reading your review when you get around to seeing it!

  6. @Jess: That's fine if you liked the film. I liked it too ...I just didn't love it. But I always like good debate.

    As for the mention of those other older films (by myself and others), Abrams pretty much invited those comparisons himself when he made Super 8 an homage to those classics. Plus, he's working alongside Spielberg and that ending had an E.T. feel to it, just without the emotional punch and proper build-up. The comparisons were inevitable. However, the reason I didn't love Super 8 had nothing to do with the fact that it wasn't as great as those other films. I didn't expect it to be. I went into the film expecting excellence, what with all the hype surrounding it, and was disappointed. As I said, I enjoyed the first half of the film. It was well-paced and I liked how the story was being played out but I feel it feel apart. There have been a LOT of mixed reviews about this film. I'm not alone in my feelings here, just like you aren't alone in yours.

    I loved the kids in the cast, as I mentioned. And I'm glad you loved the film. Did you write a review somewhere?

    As for being insulted by the Shyamalan comment, you shouldn't be. It was just my observation, not everyone's opinion. Unless, of course, you are M. Night Shyamalan. ;) That ending (and seeing the creature) just left a really, really bad taste in my mouth. Made me cringe.

    P.S. Hey Jess! Just saw Twitter. Thanks for the comment! :)

  7. Ha ha!! I used those exact words..'left a bad taste in my mouth'!!! I'm afriad it certainly did with me. It is so interesting though the extremes this has divided opinions. It is clearly one you'll either love ( hate for me) or dislike/ be ambivalent about.
    I can't believe people are getting so worked up about the comparisons to ET and The Goonies. Like you say Spielberg's involvement hasn't helped that feeling. But the thing is so unoriginal in premise that for me it isn't a homage as it is a poor attemept to live of better movies of the type from thirty years ago and regurgitated them for a newer generation, and for me that bad taste in my mouth stems from there.. and goes much further though!!
    But your write up is objective whereas I wrote with my heart on my sleeve and stated how it made me feel without any critiqing. I can't critique very well what I don't like!!

  8. @Brent: Exactly. As I said, I went into this wanting to love it but I didn't. It had an identity crisis. Was it supposed to be an all-out homage? Was it about the alien or the kids? Or neither? The focus just wasn't there. The kids were really wonderful, though. That's what really stood out for me.

    Super 8 practically asks to be compared to those Spielberg classics. But, it's nowhere near as great as they are. Spielberg movies of that type work so well because he combines childlike wonder with adult situations and genuine emotion.

  9. I don't want to harp on here but looking around some of the blogs I notice those who like this don't seem to watch anything else but mainstream modern movies. Maybe there is something in that?! After watching Paul Newman in The Hustler the night before didn't help my appraisal of this. Sorry that your eyes were subjected to my somewhat blunt review but I wrote it immediately after getting home I was in a fit of pique!!

    I actually want to ask who the biography of Bette Davis you are reading is by. I looked at two of hers today in our library and wondered if either are the one you are reading,and if it is worth reading myself at some stage. I've just started a 750 page bio of Hitchcock last night and there is an interesting anecdote of Davis. She was adamant that she was never going to do publicity shots in swimwear unless she was in water, with animals, etc, etc. I'm sure you know the quote. But what came to me was in the last few bios I have read women like Davis, Carole Lombard ( who even the fearsome Louis B Mayer was scared of ), and especially Greta Garbo, had real power and more than any male actor of the day. It is quite staggering to think when you think of the era where most woman were still repressed and nothing more than house wives. Even moguls like Mayer and Selniz knew that if their beautiful stars walked they were in trouble because in all reality it was the beauty of these women that brought in the patrons. Really is interesting to know what went on behind the scenes isn't it. A great film often doesn't show the off screen dramas. It is amazing to think Casablanca was ever made, and as for the Bridge on the River Kwai..well!!

  10. It's called Dark Victory by Ed Sikov. It's interesting because it isn't really a biography in the traditional sense. Sikov wrote in his introduction that there were already a done of books out there that delved into her troubled marriages and her outspoken personality. He was more interested in what happened on the set of each and every film she was in and he preferred to analyze her performances, etc. So, it's really interesting because while the book does talk about her marriages and personal life, that's more in the background while her work is front and centre.

    I love reading behind-the-scenes books. Even though Tony Curtis was known for his embellishments, I really enjoyed reading his book on the making of Some Like It Hot. Davis was a very strong and determined woman. Very ahead of her time. Warners was terrified of her!

  11. Yes that is what I've heard that her employers were in fear of her!! I think that title is one I looked at yesterday I'll have a look next time. It is like two Hitch books I've just read as they aren't biographies at all but a look at his film career. It is somewhat mis-leading to call them bios when in essence they aren't.
    I'm the same the behind the scenes stuff is really interesting.

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