Super 8 (2011) Review

Super 8 has been marketed as a throwback film in the tradition of the iconic Spielbergian films of the 1980s such as the Goonies and ET. There is a bit of that, but the other aspect of the marketing campaign, the one where the creature in the film is not revealed in the trailer may be more telling of the film. In those days, the ‘good stuff’ was withheld from the trailers, so as to surprise filmgoers.

That’s sort of true here, but this might be more similar to writer/director J.J. Abrams last big creature film Cloverfield where the monster is barely shown, the audience is never given a good look at the creature in totality and the actual screentime of the creature is scant minutes, if not seconds. However, I still liked the film.

This was also supposed to be, like those earlier films I mentioned, seen through kids’ eyes and to a large degree it is.

The film starts off with the death of the protagonist’s mother (the lovely Caitriona Balfe who doesn’t get any dialogue) in the small town of Lily. There is a post funeral gathering where the principles of the story are all quickly introduced and given their shorthand personality traits.

Joe (Joel Courtney), now has to be raised by his father (Kyle Chandler )who is a police officer. He arrests one man at the funeral for unknown reasons and angrily takes him off to jail.

The man (Ron Eldard) is quickly revealed to have had a part in the mother’s death and of course, he’s the father of the (puppy) love interest. It’s interesting to note that there is a great deal of anger that emanates from the father figures in the film, but I digress.

Four months later, school is out and Joe has agreed to help his friend finish his indie zombie flick shot on Super 8 film (hence the name). Joe’s father naturally doesn’t want his son doing such ‘weird nonsense’… “Filmmaking?! You’re gonna’ play baseball and like it! And you’re gonna’ play shortstop! And—” Sorry. Flashbacks of my own.

Anyway, Joe has to sneak out to help with the movie, as does the love interest Alice (Played by another one of those Fanning kids, Elle Fanning) who drives them all to the train station location.

Another newcomer, Riley Griffiths plays the overweight young would be filmmaker,  Charlie (who hasn’t hit his ‘lean’ years, yet). He’s no ‘Chunk’, but he’s likable as Joe’s friend. They film a scene and it’s quickly reavealed that Alice is quite the talented actress. Here’s a slight digression and something that I think Abrams missed on.

She has another crying scene later, and to ME, it might have been a lot more meaningful if she had not been able to cry for the film within the film. That way, that later moment would have been seen as much more ‘real’. It would have carried more weight, but that’s just me, I guess.

They end up filming while a train passes at the small unused train station and witness a truck derailing the train ( intentionally). They capture some footage amidst the destruction that plays quite a smaller part than I was expecting, going by the title.

It is also obvious that this is an Air Force train (do they have trains?) since it’s marked visibly so. Joe, who survives the train destruction witnesses something breaking out of one of the freight cars (which seems repetitive since they later ‘discover’ this on film… when Joe already knew this… puzzling.)

And I won’t reveal any more than that about the plot. That’s the setup. I have to say that I enjoyed the earlier parts with the kids, far more than the later parts with the creature. As I said earlier, they don’t show enough (and I’m a believer in NOT showing until you have to in creature features like this).

I was expecting, at some point, a real throwdown between the creature and the military (who are unfortunately portrayed very unfairly in this). I never got that. The creature is mostly shown in the dark and behind things. You get an arm , or a shot of it in the background, where you really can’t figure out what it looks like. It’s not necessarily humanoid, but the shots were so quick I never really knew what it’s shape actually was. And it was ALWAYS in the dark. However, I still liked the film.

The movie doesn’t quite hold up when I thought about any one thing for any length of time. There were a lot of details that were either not explained at all  or appeared to be mistakes. There were gaps in the storytelling. Maybe I blinked, but Joe carries a locket with a picture of his mother. It’s confiscated by a random soldier and later he has it again for the big touching moment. Possible he somehow got it back in the bus scene, but I don’t remember that.

There is also the fact that the town’s canine population goes missing (it’s in the trailer), but that’s a plotline that is never followed up on. Is the creature eating them? Well, later it’s revealed that the creature is tired and hungry. If he ate the entire dog population I’m sure that it would have lasted him for the day or so that it was in town. There were horses to munch on, too.  And people… There are also people that…. well…. I guess I can’t reveal that part, but why any of the people have disappeared for isn’t really answered either. The creature goes out of its way to abduct Alice, but there is never an explanation as to why, other than to add a little more suspense.

The movie’s written with a large degree of convenience to move the film along. The fact that the kids knew where to go to do research and that there were lots of material available to them was one such convenience. It seemed headier than kids of that age. It also would have been one of the first places that the Air Force bad guys would have searched, I would think. However, I still liked the film.

The film is also VERY anticlimactic. Despite the great initial setup, the involvement of the kids in the story almost doesn’t matter. After you’ve seen the movie, ask yourself if what happens with the creature would have happened with or without the kids. The one person that does have an impact is the schoolteacher with his truck on the train tracks. And even HIS story doesn’t entirely add up. Why would he have been there in the first place. Trying not to give anything away here, so let me also put this out there for you to ponder after you’ve seen the film: if he was ‘out of the loop’ for so many years, how would he know that this creature or the cubes would b on the train in the first place? Where was the train going? Why would they transport the creature and the cubes on the same train together? The questions go on and on. That’s no surprise since this is the guy behind that damnedable show “Lost”. I guess he feels he doesn’t need to offer up answers.

However…I still liked the film.

Really, I did. It is EXTREMELY flawed,  but it’s still better than the superhero flicks I’ve been seeing lately. I don’t think it’s nearly the classic of the early Spielberg era that’s intended here, but it is better than Cloverfield was (and I liked that one). It didn’t succeed how I was hoping it would, but it did look like a big screen film.  It did capture some of the more human moments in a film like Spielberg always focuses on, just not as well.

I liked the kids in the film as well as the adults (Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard). Ryan Lee gets a special mention as the kid that likes to play with fire. he got the designated comedy relief part and did a good job with it. I just wished that there had been a little more monster in the film. I also wish that the writer had thought a little bit harder to have given the kids more of a role in the story; i.e. actually doing something that would alter the course of events. As it is, they’re not much more than kids on the sideline filming a snippet of what happened.

I think, maybe the best part of the movie, is “The Case” that plays while the credits role. “The Case” is the film within the film and it’s very funny seeing references that the kids would probably never get themselves. There’s a Lucio Fulci (italian director that specialized in some of the most over the top onscreen gore in horror film history)  moment or two and the obvious nods to George Romero.

Super 8 does have a level of fun to it, just not to the level (again) of the likes of ET and The Goonies. It has some good humor, but has a little more serious tone than those films. There is a jump moment or two. It’s a summer film worth a look, even with all of the flaws I’ve mentioned. However…

4 of 5

And I might even see it again.

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