SUPER 8 (2011)
Written & Directed by JJ Abrams
Produced by JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg & Bryan Burk
Cinematography by Larry Fong
Music by Michael Giacchino
Edited by Maryann Brandon & Mary Jo Markey

I didn't know they remade Star Wars with little kids!

   For my very first review on this site, I have chosen a very recent film directed by the quite talented JJ Abrams. It’s actually the review which sort of inspired this entire website, so I think it’s a fitting place to begin for a variety of reasons. Primarily, Super 8 is a movie which exemplifies everything that is wholly thrilling about the art of cinema and also inadvertently displays several things that are wrong with it. In essence, Super 8 is a confounded labor of unabashed love – it’s completely adherent to a style of filmmaking and thoroughly well-composed, but is overall crippled by its own reverence. For what it’s worth, I think JJ Abrams’ intent with the way this film ends is in the purest of best intentions – but he unwittingly betrays the very conceit his film is based around, and it’s slightly disappointing to watch.

   Before I go any further I just want to state for the record that I actually really enjoy this movie for the most part – I think it’s exceptionally well made, the child actors are all talented and have great chemistry together, it has great special effects, and it successfully evokes that sort of 80’s movie feel of ordinary people taking part in something extraordinary. It’s also very funny; I found myself laughing quite a bit, even during some of the more intense action scenes – Abrams’ characters are just that good. But after I saw it for the first time, I left the theater with a sort of conflicted feeling….something that was poking at my inner film critic incessantly. I wasn’t really sure why, but now I’ve put my finger on it and can accurately put it into words.

   Now before elaborating on all of that, I’m going to elaborate a bit on JJ Abrams first, because I think it applies to how his art can be understood. JJ Abrams is a wunderkind. The dude straight up knows, understands, and respects the art of storytelling through motion pictures. His passion and devotion to cinema is truly a humbling thing to see, and it shines apparent through everything he touches. He’s very well known for being the brainchild behind many hit shows on television – including Lost, which admittedly, is one of my absolute favorite shows of all time. He directed the pilot episode of that show, and let me tell you, I would be very comfortable with saying that it is one of the best first episodes of any television series in history. (The last episode, however, is another debate entirely, harharhar….) One thing that stands out about Abrams’ style is that he is VERY good at making things intense. The guy can wring excitement out of actors standing in place and pretending to run while he jiggles the camera around – it sounds silly but the guy can make it work! He’s an artist who finds the means to get the fucking shot he needs, when he needs it, and he does it like a boss. He is truly a director born, filled to the brim with creative ideas and the pathos to execute them.

   So now that I’m done kissing his ass, I’m going to emphasize his knack for making things INTENSE!!! Abrams has clearly seen a jillion movies with characters and situations that command focused attention; he’s learned how to build character enough to make you care about if they’re in danger or not and he knows how to manipulate this to his advantage. The way his action scenes are shot and edited are key in this, and what’s better is he uses the story to add emotional heft to what’s happening in them. I’m going to use a positively fascinating scene from Super 8 as an example – the train crash sequence.

Yeah....you're probably gonna want to run now.

   This is my favorite scene in the entire film, and it leaves me jaw-dropped and speechless every time I watch it. I’m almost certain that no other train crash in the history of cinema has been as intense as this one. In the movie, the main cast – a group of young friends who we’ve spent some time getting to know – have arrived at a lonely train station in both the middle of nowhere and the night to shoot their zombie flick on a Super 8 film camera. *Note to all – this is where the title of the film comes from. Ya get it?* While shooting a crucial scene with a train rolling by (for “production value” the lad director specifies), the hero of our film – a boy named Joe (Joel Courtney) – notices a truck turning onto the tracks and driving straight towards the oncoming train. Train and truck collide, and the train starts to de-rail violently – right next to these kids. Scared beyond all recognition, the kids run for dear life while the train literally rains from the sky all around them. If you haven’t seen this train crash, you’re just going to have to take my word on it – it is scary. The raging speed and deadly velocity with which the impacts of the derailing train are imbued with are truly a sight to behold; it’s really quite frightening. And what’s more, these kids who we’ve come to know and (hopefully) like are caught RIGHT in the middle of it!!! RUN, GODDAMMIT!

   The train wrecks in such a violent fashion you kind of roll your eyes a bit when absolutely nobody dies in the scene – not even the dude who ran his friggin’ truck into the train in the first place. And I’m NOT saying that somebody NEEDS to die, like movies are better when characters are getting mowed down left and right – but c’mon, if there was a group of REAL people caught up in a swirling mass of metallic carnage and mayhem like the one we just witnessed, I’m pretty sure SOMEBODY would perish, or at least be mortally injured – but this is getting beside the point!!!

   The point is, in this scene Abrams raises the stakes for his characters by putting them in a death-defying situation that not only sparks the plot of the flick, but also sets the precedent for what is going to follow. The reason this train crashes is so the creature can escape and get the story moving – and if you’re going to crash the vessel which carries your main plot point/focus of the film in such an intense and violent manner, it sort of hints that the creature in question will itself be intense and violent. And it is!…..for a while. What I’m saying is, if you’re going to introduce something so pants-wettingly intense into a film, it would only be wise to continue with that same tone of intensity whenever the creature is around, so the rest of the movie doesn’t pale in comparison to that one scene. And Abrams, for a majority of the movie, does an excellent job of this. Whenever the creature attacks, we only get fleeting glimpses of it, and we are given a sense of its power and attitude towards human beings through its destructive actions.

   Weird things also start happening around town after the train crash: dogs start evacuating town in large numbers, the engines are torn from all of the cars at the local dealership, microwaves and other electronic devices are starting to go missing – and people are as well. To us, this is clearly the work of the monster, doing whatever its pissed off alien creature heart is intent on doing. As the plot chuffs along, things continue to get complicated for the characters, situations occur, and things start to come to a head when the town is evacuated and the military rolls in to go to war with this extraterrestrial nuisance. While all of this is happening, the kids uncover information about the monster and its plight: it’s bein’ held prisoner by the government and just wants to go home goddammit! During this information download, we are told by a very reliable source (the former government scientist turned high school teacher/dude who ran his truck into the train and started this whole crazy mess) that the monster has come to despise all humans and has developed a pretty surly attitude. And this holds true, because we’ve seen the creature murk any and all humans he comes into contact with thus far. But there’s a crucial moment near the film’s end that drives a hard, rusty nail into its own heart – and there’s no coming back for the poor little monster flick.

I swear, this image is a lot less hilarious when viewed in context.

   So Joe and his buddy Cary (Ryan Lee) are traversing through the beast’s underground lair, where Joe’s kidnapped crush Alice (Elle Fanning) is being stored as an afternoon snack alongside a bunch of other townsfolk who have disappeared. When Joe and Cary get there they see the alien with a leg literally dangling out of its mouth – this alien digs on human flesh. After creating a distraction, Joe saves Alice and some of the other adult humans and make an escape, but the monster finds them and picks off the two adults in a manner most becoming a pissed off subterranean alien (and he’s homesick too….you think Radiohead has a right to be miffed here?)

   The film begins its unfortunate decline from a glorious sprint to a saddening limp when the creature backs the kids into a corner menacingly. It is at this moment in the movie where things begin to make an almost preposterous turn for the warmhearted. Joe, understanding the alien creature towering before him, bravely steps forward and imparts upon it the knowledge that not everyone is horrible. The monster picks Joe up and examines him carefully, presumably making a psychic connection with the boy, as we’ve been given such information numerous times at this point. It’s at this point the monster sees the overwhelming goodness in Joe and – in a moment of “humanity” – the monster’s eyes change to that of a happy puppy (seriously…it’s almost enough to elicit “awws”) and he lets Joe and his friends leave with their lives. The kids are then reunited with their parents, all is well with the world, and the alien rebuilds its ship and takes off into the night sky while everyone watches solemnly.  Sounds pretty happy and cathartic, right?

   Well, it is. But see, the thing is – up until that point, the movie was NOT that type of movie. That monster had every inclination in the world to rip those kids limb from limb (like he had done to pretty much every other human he came in contact with) but through the power of childhood innocence he changes his mind and leaves without harming a hair on their heads. I think I’m sounding a little more critical than I intend to, but this is basically what happens at the end of Super 8.

   Now, this isn’t necessarily the worst thing ever. I GET that Abrams is saying that the power of good and understanding is a universal thing, and even the most savage of beasts can be calmed if only they get a little empathy from somebody. I GET that it’s all well and good that the kids are reunited with their fathers, who have come to their own moral victories. These are all strong thematic choices that are perfectly capable of resonating effectively with an audience – but one thing I ALSO get is that a movie shouldn’t compromise its own stylistic integrity to satisfy the sappy resolution the filmmakers think the audience needs – that is just bad storytelling, and worst of all, it’s insulting to the audience.

   Super 8 seems to operate on this principle that if you conjure up images of catastrophic calamity and danger and then wrap it up at the end with a safe, risk-free bow, it’ll all work out to cinema gold. But even though Abrams’ intentions are good, his film doesn’t seem to realize that it’s pandering to its audience by doing so. The fact is, he expects us to do away with all of the information we’ve been told about this creature and its behavior and accept its newly found heart of gold. It doesn’t do what it is supposed to do, merely because the script wants to get to its sugary, please-everyone conclusion. It’s almost like Abrams created this powerful, angry, truly terrifying movie monster to raise all hell but then put a leash on it, domesticating it so he can impress the guests coming over for dinner. The doe-eye scene that Abrams gives the monster makes it look downright cute – and that is NOT something you want your big, scary movie monster to be!

The Super 8 monster, seconds from unleashing its unspeakable terror

   So what am I saying, exactly? That JJ Abrams should have had the kids who we’ve come to know and root for torn to shreds and ended the movie that way? Well, yes and no, actually – I believe if you’re going to create that kind of situation, then the characters need to be true to themselves and react accordingly. Quite frankly, I feel that the monster would have torn the flesh off those poor little kids and gone about his merry way – that’s just the kind of intensity I picked up from this savage creature. But, the characters didn’t necessarily have to BE in that particular scenario – I feel that there might have been a more effective way of getting these characters to confront that stayed true to the nature of the monster and also provided the kind of wonderful closure Abrams was striving for. What could that scenario have been? I dunno, maybe there could have been a dramatic standoff with the military where the kids come between the war of the worlds and convince the trigger-happy Americans that this alien came in peace and just wants to leave in the same vein! It’s just as believable as Joe reaching into the monster’s heart and convincing it to spare him. The fact is, there’s a gaping logical flaw in the movie’s climax solely to get to the happy ending Abrams wanted, and it sacrifices all the artistic choices he made in the first 90 minutes of the flick to do it.

   My main beef with this turn of events in the film is I know Abrams is a smarter filmmaker than this. I know that he’s a dude who likes to push boundaries, and I know he’s the kind of dude who likes a good, thrilling story – his work on television and as director of Mission Impossible III and the new Star Trek is evidence enough of this. So why does the immeasurably strong and volatile creature that kills humans on sight have a completely inexplicable change of heart when it comes to gobbling children at the end of Super 8? Because I think JJ wanted to remind us that – hey, monsters are people too, and in movies, children never get hurt! It’s just been predetermined that we (the audience) would choke the ending down better that way, even if it’s completely contradictory to everything that came before it. And again, I’m NOT saying that the kids HAD to be killed in that scene, or that the movie would have been BETTER if they did – I’m just saying that if you’re even going to put your characters in that situation, don’t have one of them (the monster) act completely against its own motivation just to satisfy our “need” to see the children go unharmed.

   I’ve been singling out Abrams for the way this all turned out…and in being the director I do think he fields most of the blame…but I think it might be a little more fitting to lump producer Steven Spielberg into this paradigm as well. Spielberg is well known for having noble, sappy, Hollywood-friendly endings in his films, and hey, that’s just his cup o’tea. But it seems his knack for making the end of his films look like Norman Rockwell paintings has bled over to this venture, and it has completely neutered what could have been a wholly satisfying cinematic experience. I can’t say anything for sure, since I am not privy to the process behind how this film was made, but I’m willing to bet Spielberg’s influence is (ironically) a key factor in the harming of this film’s potential.

Like father, like illegitimate son!

   So final verdict? Super 8, overall, is a pretty decent movie…certainly one of the best to come out of this foul year for cinema, the year 2011. It captures a feeling of excitement and wonder that is admittedly absent from mainstream cinema these days, and it’s because a talented director was at the helm. There are true, heartfelt character moments in the film that other films would give their right arm for! But the glaring flaw in storytelling logic cannot be overlooked, and even though I believe the film is trying to pass along a positive message and provide the audience a good ol’ happy ending, it ends up betraying its own conceit and is therefore weakened as a whole. It’s really quite a shame, because the movie IS good and it stands up on its own legs – they’re just kicked out from underneath by overzealous good intentions.

   But at least the dogs knew to get the hell outta there! There wasn’t even potential for one to become a snack in this movie – that’ll show that flesh-eating alien!

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