Super 8 (2011)
Director: J.J. Abrams
Plot: After witnessing a mysterious train crash, a group of friends in the summer of 1979 begin noticing strange happenings going around in their small town, and begin to investigate into the creepy phenomenon.
Rating: PG for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.
One of the most anticipated films of the summer, at least from a sci-fi geek’s perspective, Super 8 is a mixture of all things good and bad about Hollywood filmmaking. With a strong team working behind the camera including Steven Spielberg as producer, Super 8 is technically stunning for a US$50 million blockbuster. However, it is the essential matter of plot and character that ruins the film in ways that we do not come to expect from a J.J. Abrams’ film. As evident in Mission: Impossible III (2006) and Star Trek (2009), Abrams can direct an action picture. Unfortunately, he does not seem to write as well as he directs.
In Super 8, the basic premise goes like this: Some school kids including lead protagonist Joe (Joel Courtney) use their Super 8 camera to shoot a zombie short for a local film festival. When shooting outdoors one night in a deserted train stop, a train zooms past before colliding head-on with a vehicle, leaving the kids to scurry for their lives amidst explosions and flying metal in the film’s first and most satisfying action set-piece. The mystery of the train wreck slowly reveals itself to be something more sinister, and it is up to the boys and a girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), to find the answers.
A tribute of sorts to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), while referencing his other works such as E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), War of the Worlds (2005), and even Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Super 8 is like seeing, and I quote Roger Ebert, “a lost early Spielberg classic”. Well, at least for the first hour that is. The setup of the plot is excellent with specific attention going to the production design, which evokes a fairly strong mood associated with 1970s suburbia. The cinematography and editing are praiseworthy too. Like I said earlier, this film is technically flawless.
But the problem with Abrams’ film lies past the halfway mark. Plot becomes unrealistic as situations unfold not with logic but with convenience. A plot device involving a vibrating cube is not explained thoroughly. Worse, Joe and Alice’s fathers are not developed well enough such that the respective father-child relationships appear to be less emotionally potent than expected. While sometimes Spielberg is accused of overindulging in sentimentality, at least his films are realistically depicted and his characters strongly motivated. For Abrams, the characters in Super 8 may be far from paper-thin, but there are flaws in the way they react to change.The visual effects are amazing to look at though. Unfortunately, the climax is short-lived instead of the lengthy spectacular extravaganza it should have aspired to. Speaking of which, Super 8 could have done with an additional 15-20 minutes because the final act seems awkwardly paced, as if there is a mad rush to complete the film. Super 8 may have its flaws, but it is still generally quite an entertaining picture. While I will fall short of praising Abrams for his work here, I still think it is a decent tribute to the wide-eyed wonderment of 1970s sci-fi cinema. But if you look into my eyes, I am clearly only half hypnotized.