Review: Super 8, 2011, dir. J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams is short of a single meticulously crafted script before he creates his masterpiece; he knows how to make an entertaining, fulfilling movie that resonates with his audiences, but each of his cinematic endeavors has been hamstrung by virtue of lacking a highly polished, impeccable piece of writing that elevates his work from “good” to truly, genuinely great. If anything speaks to Super 8‘s quality, though, it’s that it manages to succeed despite flaws that could have toppled the entire plot. If the coyly, perhaps misleadingly, named blockbuster falters somewhat in the third act and could have benefited from a judicious set of screenplay revisions, Super 8 nonetheless proves to be a dazzling and satisfying bit of retro storytelling doesn’t so much recall the movies of Amblin Entertainment as it outright emulates them.

It’s also a great movie about people making movies, not so they can earn a fat paycheck for sitting in authority over a production from the comfort of their director’s chair but because they love making movies. Our rascally pack of heroes spend part of Super 8‘s run time making a zombie film in time to submit it for festival competition; it’s during one such shoot that they witness (nay, experience) the catastrophic derailing of a train in what’s sure to be one of the more impressive slam-bang-boom sequences of explosions of the season. In the chaos, the friends don’t see a large alien creature escape from its internment in one of the train cars, and in the aftermath of the disaster their town experiences a number of bizarre phenomena and disappearances as the creature begins rampaging through the streets as the military arrives to contain it again.

Super 8 adds up to varying parts monster movie and coming-of-age story; amidst the growing anxiety and discontent amongst his friends and neighbors, young protagonist Joe (Joel Courtney) experiences his first tragedy in the form of his mother’s death and his first love in the form of Alice (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the man whose negligence put Joe’s mother in harm’s way. From the word go, Super 8 must balance two very dissonant stories and make them whole in a way that’s organic and makes sense, and for the most part the film succeeds until the emotional purchase it establishes crumbles somewhat and the thematic connections built over the course of the narrative sever. The good news is that when the film stumbles, it manages to stay on its feet; the better news is that Abrams doesn’t trip up until the third act, but we all know that bad endings can ruin good movies in a heartbeat and render the preceding story bereft of value.

Fortunately, that doesn’t happen here, but I wonder what Super 8 would have been if Abrams had been willing to take the time needed to really tighten up his script.

I want to talk about what works here, lest anyone jump the shark and characterize my opinion on the film as negative or mixed. I liked Super 8. In fact, I liked it immensely as a piece of blockbusting and emotionally-charged entertainment and as an ode to the films of not only Amblin but also a minor tribute to D.I.Y. filmmaking icon Sam Raimi (through the film-within-a-film). Abrams gets the mood he needs to achieve; employing a really stellar cast of kids, he hits the right tonal beats, alternating between some deliciously staged and suspenseful monster attacks and rapturous, uplifting magic, balancing the ferocious and destructive bent of the film’s extraterrestrial force of nature with some stunningly beautiful imagery and sequences. And it’s paced really, really well, something that’s critical to the success of a film of Super 8‘s background. Pacing’s one of those unseen elements of cinema that you might never consider if a film moves at a good clip, but can totally cripple another if it’s too slow, and one thing’s for sure about Super 8: You will never stop to check your watch to see how much time has passed. It’s exciting, it’s engaging, and it genuinely wants  to wow its audience.

As much as I loved the time I spent watching Super 8, I’d be lying if I said it was perfect. The honest truth is that loving a movie warts and all still means that there are warts, but in examining plot missteps I think one of Abrams’ greatest strengths as an entertainer shines through: his ability to draw viewers into his stories and hold them so tightly in his thrall that any narrative flaws become invisible or develop the appearance of being inconsequential. It’s a talent that served him well with Star Trek and one that truly pulls it’s weight in Super 8, particularly when we come to the final twenty minutes, where the ride gets bumpy.

With the climax in his sights, Abrams loses his way. The thematic elements of the story, about dealing with loss and moving past personal tragedy, are built up well enough in the preceding two thirds of the film but brought full circle in a way that’s frankly mystifying. Mostly, Abrams doesn’t make a firm decision regarding the alien as a character; clearly, he means the creature’s presence to serve as a catalyst for Joe to make peace with his grief, but it’s treated too much as an afterthought for it to figure prominently into the climax in a way that makes sense. Abrams almost feels obligated to force confrontation between his monster and his heroes, and their ultimate face-to-face feels like it belongs to a different movie; I understand the intention, but Super 8 works better as a movie about kids on the fringe of an event, and its monster yields best results when kept in the background. The incongruity in their meeting isn’t enough to totally kick the film to the floor for certain, but hamstrings Super 8 plenty and keeps it from hitting the peaks of greatness it could have. There are other problems– secondary characters are either given too much or not enough to do, making their appearance in the final scene really awkward– but it’s the alien that ends up being Super 8‘s most glaring issue.

And you know what? I had fun anyways. For its imperfections, Super 8 knows exactly what it needs to deliver to succeed as a film and as a piece of nostalgic summer entertainment. That it’s able to do so and overcome the roadblocks it puts in its own way is impressive. Super 8 never needed to be classic, or equal the works of Spielberg– it just needed to remind us of them and stand apart from them at the same time. As for Abrams, the guy clearly has a lot to offer, but he desperately needs to look more closely at his scripts (and drop the damn lens flare already) with a sharp, critical eye or hire someone to do it for him. Given an ironclad piece of writing, Abrams could really go somewhere special– and take us along with him for the ride.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Super 8, 2011, dir. J.J. Abrams

  1. I completely agree with this review. Spot on observations and critique. I think J.J. is just getting started and is on way to finally establishing his true voice. He’s got the gift and the blueprint, now he needs to fully commit his passion for film into a script that can keep up. The guy moves fast like his pacing seems to suggest. Nevertheless, a breath of fresh air this summer.

  2. For me JJ Abrams succeeds very well as a visionary, especially when he’s given room to do his thing boht in real life and onscreen time-wise. He has great ideas, but perhaps too many of them and he’s not the best at self-criticism and “toning it down”.

    Still haven’t seen this, I’ve found the reviews to be very mixed especially when it comes to the retro element of the film. A must-see anyways.

    • Blain, I think you summarize Abrams’ character pretty well there. He’s pretty clearly gifted, but I think he lets his imagination and his energy get the better of him when it comes to the script-writing stage of his projects. I wonder if having someone co-write with him would be a benefit to him?

      Split, I agree completely. Abrams biggest failing is his inability to step back from his work and really hone in on what works and what doesn’t; if he can get by that he could turn out to be one of the most vital mainstream filmmakers working today. As for Super 8, it’s the kind of movie that really deserves to be seen in a theater. If you get the time it’s worth your while.

  3. I felt the same way Andrew. It seems like it didn’t know whether it wanted to be monster movie like Cloverfield or a more traditional coming-of-age film. It was entertaining and well made but the whole didn’t add up to the sum of the parts. I felt the action were a bit too over-the-top in terms of being too loud and spectacular. And the lens flares just get distracting because you know there will be so many!

    • The lens flare has to stop. Really. I guess it’s his signature “thing” and all, but man, it’s tiresome and frankly it doesn’t add anything to 95% of the shots he uses it in.

      I really think that that indecision you identify, in the form of the alien’s involvement in the climax, is what really holds this movie back. Honestly, I think the movie functions a lot better when the monster’s not directly in the film’s line of sight; keeping it as a background element that informs and helps drive the film’s plot works just fine. I don’t know if I would find this to be such a big deal if I didn’t love the rest of the film, but everything outside of that last twenty minutes is just wonderful storytelling that ends up being capstoned by Abrams’ inability to figure out what the hell to do with his monster.

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