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Director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) has crafted Super 8 to be an intentional and loving homage to all things Steven Spielberg.  E.T., Close Encoutners, Jaws, these are the movies which greatly influenced Abrams as a filmmaker and it’s these films he had in mind as he crafted Super 8.  And while he’s borrowed classic Spielbergian elements to build his story of a large alien let loose on a small town and the young kid trying to find it, and even has Spielberg as a producer, he hasn’t turned a blind eye towards the things which hold his attention, I.E. puzzle box mystery and lens flares.  On paper the marriage of the two film making minds would seem ideal but the end result is a mismatched experience.  An emotionally convincing family drama of a son and father trying to survive the wake of Mom dying exist on one side, on the other is a lame duck story of a pissed off alien trying to escape its government tormentors.

The father-son side of Super 8 is by far its greatest strength.  Newcomer Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb, a bright, innocent kid who loves monster movies, model making and doing make up for his friends homemade zombie flick.  It’s 1979 and 8 MM cameras are the age’s version of homemade digital film making.  Joe’s life has been thrown into despondency and lose at the death of his mother.  His relationship with Dad, a town deputy, is on the rocks as he struggles with her being gone.  Dad’s even passive aggressively trying to ship Joe off to baseball camp for the summer so he can mourn alone.  One night Joe and his friends sneak out to film scenes for their movie at a local train station, daring to invite cute classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) along to act in their project.  Then, in what is a show stopping sequence, a train crashes all around them and a big alien escapes.  Town’s folk start going missing, car engines and electronics vanish in bulk, the military arrives and starts acting ominous as the whole town becomes threatened.  For a while it looks as if Abrams may pull off his ambition, to create what is tantamount to a lost Spielberg classic created with his own flourishes.  But the minds of these two men don’t mesh as well as expected or hoped for.

What primarily separates Spielberg’s influencing classics from Abrams tribute piece is that Spielberg stared up to the stars and was wonder struck by the possibilities.  He introduced us to benevolent creatures who could touch our greater nature, appeal to our better instincts and perhaps teach us something valuable about ourselves.  Abrams looks into the night sky and sees angry monsters out to get you.  His creature never makes any kind of emotional impact on anyone or anything outside of sheer terror, E.T. as a 25 foot tall behemoth that’s pissed off at the world and looking to settle a score is what this is.  Abrams film keeps things shaded and mysterious until the end but when it’s revealed what our mysterious being is up to, and looks like, profound disappointment sets in.  One is left wondering why we should even care if the mistreated alien being escapes government clutches.  It’s motivations are thoroughly explained but it doesn’t change the fact that our visitor from space is not a pleasant fellow, a little brother of sorts to Abrams Cloverfield beast.  Killing and maiming as it sees fit is no way to endear an alien being to the audience or invest in its outcome.  By taking this viscous route Abrams practically cuts the legs out from under his movie.

Aside from this crippling drawback there are some nice things to take away from Super 8.  Abrams really captures the look and vibe of the late 70’s Spielberg experience, at least to a point.  While his film doesn’t work for me it provides a pleasant echo of nostalgia, though you’d be better off watching E.T. again.  On the acting side Joel Courtney makes Joe seem a little too aloof in places but he’s an otherwise nice anchor for the film.  He never feels forced or unnatural.  With no prior acting experience he acquits himself well with material that’s occasionally demanding.  The real deal is Elle Fanning, the scene stealing 13-year old would probably have made a better lead overall had Abrams had been thinking a little more outside of the demands of the Spielberg box.  Her character comes equipped with equally compelling parenting issues as Joe.  Doubling up on this character arch seems a little redundant.  Also solid is Kyle Chandler as Joe’s emotionally constipated/crippled father.  A little less successful is the casting of Joe’s friends and film making cohorts.  While there’s some respect to be earned in being honest with portraying fringe lurking adolescent nerds, Joe’s buddies are mostly a pack of obnoxious jerks and dweebs.

Super 8 was supposed to be the one real deal film this summer.  The lone event movie which didn’t seem rooted in Hollywood’s cynical summer cycle of refried, CGI overloaded faux thrills.  But instead of achieving the grandiose emotional and visceral highs of the masterpieces which inspired it, Super 8 mucks up too many important parts of the story.  It treads the kind of territory Superman Returns accomplished several years ago, dutifully paying homage to its beloved predecessors from decades past, but failing on its own merits.  When the vengeful creature crawls into his spacecraft to return to the heavens, you’re not left fondly hoping “Maybe he’ll come back one day” as much as muttering to yourself “Good riddance.”  Never a wise emotion to end a movie on.


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