I love coming of age films. I love monster movies. And I was ten in 1979 so I'm a ripe target for any sort of nostalgia for that time. Oh, and I'm a Steven Spielberg fan to boot.
So given all that, you'd think that Super 8, the latest film from writer/director J.J. Abrams, would press all the right buttons with me. It's a monster movie taking place against the backdrop of a coming of age film set in 1979, filmed as a loving homage to late '70s/early '80s Spielberg. I'm telling you - this is not a movie you need to hard sell me on! Even though I haven't been too taken with anything that Abrams has done to date, I thought for sure that Super 8 would make a fan out of me - at least for this one film. However, I'd be hard-pressed to think of any other movie in recent memory that's irritated me on such a grand scale.
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD!
First of all, let's address some points that might be perceived as nit picky - like the fact that Abrams get so much wrong with the 1979 setting. If a filmmaker is going to make the decision to set their film in a particular time period, I think they should feel obliged to get as many details right as they can. Especially if it's a time that the filmmaker was old enough to have lived through. If some twenty-two year-old dope made the mistakes that Abrams makes in Super 8, I might have been inclined to be a little more forgiving but Abrams should remember certain things about '79 - like the fact that words like "bitchin'", "bogus", and "mint" were not slang terms back then. To hear those words coming out of the mouths of characters who are supposed to be living in '79 is instantly jarring. It sounds wrong because it is wrong. In contrast, watch Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993) if you want to see a movie made by someone who has a crystal clear memory of the time they grew up in.
I was also put off by the repeated use of the term "production value" by Super 8's aspiring filmmaker Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffths). That's the way kids talk today, in a world where everybody with even a passing interest in the movies is hip to filmmkaing jargon, but not how they talked in '79. And when Charles takes his film to a photo shop to be developed, he would have known that it would take up to several days to get his developed film back. He wouldn't ask if it could be done "overnight" - that's a modern term. At best he would've asked if it could be done by "tomorrow." But Abrams has Charles ask for "overnight" just so that he can get a laugh from modern viewers when the photo shop clerk tells the kid that "nothing is overnight" - ha, ha! everything used to take forever back then!
Also on the fact-checking front, the Rubik's Cube didn't come to the US until 1980 so having a character referring to an object as being "like a white Rubik's Cube" is pure carelessness. Further, Walkmans were another item not sold in the US until '80. Even then, as with most new technology, the prices were so high that the average person didn't own them right away. But yet in Super 8, some small town, minimum wage gas station attendant in the summer of '79 is rocking out with his new Walkman - a erroneous detail that Abrams only includes to score a cheap chuckle out of audiences who can't help but laugh at a hilarious cameo from old technology.
Some might think I'm needlessly piling on Abrams for his lack of attention to detail. But the mistakes made in this film are so incredibly lazy and so easily detected by anyone with even the most half-assed recollections of 1979 that Abrams should rightly be called out for them.
But, some will argue that none of this matters. After all, nobody is walking into Super 8 expecting a boring history lesson, right? OK, for the sake of argument then, let's say that none of it matters. But it is fair to say that audiences showed up to Super 8 expecting a kick-ass monster movie, right? After all, the trailers and TV spots were coy about what Super 8 was about but when you see shots of an unknown thing pounding its way out of a crashed railroad car, it's fair to think that some manner of strange creature is going to be rampaging through this movie.
To see a space creature or genetic mutation, or whatever Super 8's monster is, terrorizing a small town and taking on the might of the military sounds good to me so go ahead and show me an amazing creature and I'll gladly let all instances of historical inaccuracies be forgiven. Oh, wait. Turns out this aspect of the film is a total wash out, too. As a creature feature, Super 8 is nothing but weak sauce. I didn't think any movie monster could be more poorly designed than the one in the Abrams-produced, Matt Reeves-directed Cloverfield (2008) but Super 8 has proved me wrong. Nice going, assholes!
Abrams keeps his monster in the shadows for the greater part of Super 8, which is fine. I don't mind waiting for a pay-off and it's an honorable monster movie tradition to tease audiences for as long as possible before revealing the full sight of the monster. I mean, look at how well that approach worked in Ridley Scott's Alien (ironically, a 1979 film). But when we finally do see the monster here, it looks like ass - just another forgettable CGI creation. For decades, makers of B-movies always did their best to hit home runs with their monsters. Whether these monsters came from outer space, from a scientist's lab, from the fall out of nuclear testing, or from the depths of hell, they had to be monsters that audiences would thrill to and remember. Filmmakers used to take pride in their monsters, and with good reason. But who the fuck would take ever pride in Super 8's monster? Seriously, I would take Ro-Man from Robot Monster(1953) over Super 8's creature. At least a friggin' dude in a gorilla suit with like a deep sea diving helmet with antennae is memorable:
It used to be that with limited technology and funds that resourceful moviemakers were able to create the most indelible monsters. Some were so good that even if they were only on screen for mere seconds, they achieved cinematic immortality - like the demon from Curse of the Demon (1957). On the other hand, the monster in Super 8 is so bad, such a miserable digital turd, that you're already forgetting it even as you're looking at it. On top of it's lousy appearance is the fact that it's character is so half-baked. We're supposed to feel some kind of sympathy for it because we learn that it wasn't a violent creature until it spent years being poked, prodded, and experimented on by scientists but outside of when it abstains from eating the film's protagonist, we never see any of it's endearing side so it's hard to feel much when it makes its exit back into space at the end.
Speaking of that exit, how I would have loved it if the alien had finally rebuilt its spaceship, took off with the entire town watching on in awe, then once it got to a certain height in the sky, it unleashed a death ray that obliterated the town as a final "fuck you" for its years of torment 'cause this is one alien that doesn't play the forgiveness game! Later, in an ironic coda, authorities could have discovered the lost reel of super 8 footage that proves the existence of the alien. Da-da-da-duuumm...
But to have that ending would've meant that the film that Super 8's young protagonists were working on had something to do with the movie itself and, well, it doesn't.
I'll get to the film within the film's lack of importance in a sec but first I've got to say that if a bunch of kids were making a zombie film in '79 they'd be emulating the blue-faced zombies of Dawn of the Dead (1978). Instead, the first zombie we see in the super 8 footage with its white, pupil-less eyes looks downright Raimi-esque. Now, one could say that Raimi himself was making the first Evil Dead in '79 or thereabouts and maybe these kids are just equally visionary but I'm not buying that. Still, I'm willing to let this point go.
What I can't let go is the poor integration of the kid's movie making with the larger storyline. One thing that might have helped is if the main character, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), had been the wanna-be filmmaker. Instead, he's the movie's make-up and model guy and even that aspect to him isn't fully explored. It would have been much more effective to have sensitive Joe be the director rather than his abrasive buddy Charles - especially with Joe dealing with the fallout from the tragic death of his mother in an industrial accident.
To have Joe be single-mindedly focused on making his movie as a way to shut out his grief and escape into another world would have made sense. Instead, the movie only seems like a project that Joe's participating in out of an obligation to his friend and because it gives him the opportunity to get close to Alice (Elle Fanning), who's just been cast as the lead actress in what was formerly an all-male film.
To be positive, there were a couple of details concerning the kid's filming that I enjoyed. One, after Charles gets an Oscar-worthy dramatic take from Alice as she delivers her lines on a train station platform, he does another take of the same scene a minute later against the deafening rush of a coming train in order to maximize his "production values," not considering the fact that all the noise from the train is drowning out anything that Alice is saying. And in another clever scene, the kids use classic low budget ingenuity to employ a group of soldiers as unwitting background extras in a scene.
Other than offering these nicely observed moments, though, nothing about the fact that these kids are making a movie makes any real difference to the plot of Super 8. To have a movie called Super 8 but have the act of moviemaking be superfluous is an especially egregious failing. If only these kids had been making a monster on the loose movie, using every old-school method they had - stop-motion, puppetry, miniatures, etc. - and then find that both to their glee and horror they have a real live flesh and blood monster that they can film but only if they're willing to risk life and limb to get close to it. That I would've enjoyed. That, or the many other possible scenarios where Super 8 could've actually been about young moviemakers making movies. I've heard that Charlie's finished zombie movie plays during the end credits, which sounds like a cute touch, but after suffering through the entirety of Super 8, I just didn't care enough to stay and watch it so I left.
That leaves only Super 8's coming of age story to discuss but there too, Super 8 fails. The cast is very good and the performances are natural and endearing (particularly Elle Fanning) but the character arcs are weak and neither Joe nor Alice do much coming of aging. I don't mean that in a lewd way - just that they end up pretty much where they started at as people, except just a little bit closer to each other. Joe ostensibly has the burden of grief over the loss of his mother to overcome and that's what the climax hinges on but yet this loss is never shown to be such a crippling thing for Joe so to have it be a key moment at the end where he literally and symbolically "lets go" of his mother is a forced bit that doesn't seem related to the movie before it. We know that Joe surely still misses his mother but yet he seems awfully well-adjusted, like he's already moved on in most respects (after the winter-set opening scene, the main story picks up four months after his mother has passed), so for Abrams to stage a big moment where Joe lets go of a locket with his mother's picture doesn't have the emotional impact that it's meant to.
If we're interested in anything, it's how Joe and Alice's stab at romance will shape up but there's not even much to that. The two like each other pretty much from the start so Joe doesn't have to do anything to win Alice's affections except to linger on her porch early on and the only major obstacle their relationship has to overcome is their feuding fathers - such a nothing, lightweight "feud" that there's never any doubt that it'll be resolved as quickly as it takes to make a manly handshake.
Super 8 is a meticulous act of mimicry but anyone who remembers seeing films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or E.T. (1982) in the theaters will vividly remember what unprecedented events they were and they'll know that Super 8 just doesn't compare, not even with Spielberg himself on board as producer. Some will call this movie an unabashed love letter to both Spielberg and to the spirit of moviemaking itself. But please, just open your eyes and call it what it really is: junk mail.