Overwhelming Homage, by Kyle Anderson
If J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 had simply been the story of a bunch of kids in 1979 trying to make a Super 8 horror movie amid parental feuds and familial loss, it might have been a truly exceptional, heartwarming film. Too bad what really happens is that there’s a big grotty alien wreaking havoc on their small town while all that personal stuff is going on. This is probably the only time I’ve ever been to a sci-fi movie and wished there wasn’t any sci-fi stuff in it. What was the matter with the science fiction elements? Absolutely nothing. They were all handled really well visually and the action sequences are suitably exciting. In fact, I didn’t really dislike any part of the movie; it just didn’t feel complete to me. It just sort of exists. I’m putting this down entirely to the concept: J.J. Abrams does a Steven Spielberg movie.
Spielberg’s work has clearly impacted Abrams’ work, as I think it has impacted a lot of filmmakers who came of age between Jaws and Jurassic Park. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to do an homage to people you look up to, and if you can get the man himself on board to produce, more power to you. The problem in the case of Super 8 is that Abrams has recognized a lot of the component parts of a “Spielberg Movie” but when he put them together, they didn’t quite gel. There are elements in the film of the aforementioned Jaws and Jurassic Park as well as other films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, War of the Worlds, and E.T. Some scenes seem almost lifted verbatim and plugged into a small Ohio town with a spider-crab like alien instead of a shark or dinosaurs.
There is also Spielberg’s running theme of fatherhood and fathers learning to live with their sons, and vice-versa. This film has two father-child relationships, both strained because of a single incident. In both cases, we get very little interaction between the respective parent and child and as such the culmination of these threads is less than cathartic. The central relationship between Joel Courtney as young Joe Lamb and Kyle Chandler as his father, Deputy Jack Lamb is clearly defined up front, but never fully explored the way it probably should have and Deputy Lamb really plays no part in the climax, though he is set up to be the man of action.
This is not to say I didn’t like the movie, though. Parts of it are fantastic, predominantly the child actors who were incredibly believable and likeable. Aside from Elle Fanning as Alice, “the girl,” the young performers were not known faces, and Courtney, who is the lead of the film, and Riley Griffiths who plays super 8 auteur Charles have never acted on screen before. Everyone is fantastic and the relationships between the kids are what drive the movie. Watching them bicker and argue while trying to make their little zombie movie is a delight and even when they’re dealing the larger issues of military and alien action, they’re still fun to watch. Whenever the film had any extended scenes away from the kids, I started to get bored, more a testament to their great acting than anything poor about the rest.
I also really liked that the film didn’t have a “star.” Kyle Chandler is recognizable and is quite a good actor, but he’s not a marquee name and I applaud Abrams for not casting a Tom Cruise or a Russell Crowe, even though he probably could have gotten them. Chandler is a true everyman and plays the role of the deputy with the rough exterior trying to be a good father quite well. Ron Eldard as Alice’s father and Noah Emmerich as the sinister Air Force officer are also good and understated.
About two-thirds of the way through, the film turns into a full-on alien movie and we see ever-clearer glimpses of the creature. This was all fine and even well done a lot of the time, but I found myself a little disappointed that it couldn’t just be a movie about the kids. There didn’t NEED to be an alien in it. If they’d had the exact same movie, with train crash and everything, and it had just been a chemical spill or some other Earthbound danger, I think it would have been a much better film, but because Spielberg had aliens in some of his movies, there’s an alien in this movie too. Spielberg with lens flares. I didn’t dislike Super 8. In fact I liked it a good amount, and I think anyone who goes to see it will probably have a really good time. Abrams is a good director and I would have liked to have seen J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 and not J.J. Abrams doing a Steven Spielberg impression.