It’s hard to watch Super 8 and not get nostalgic. It’s also hard at times to stomach just how hard J.J. Abrams tries to mimic his producer’s (Steven Spielberg) previous work without a full appreciation for what made those films special. The line between inspiration and cheap imitation can be a fine one.
Super 8 is a throw back to the ’80s where a rag tag bunch of kids set out to shoot their own movie. While sneaking out one night to shoot a scene by the railroad tracks a horrific train wreck takes place that leads to mysterious activities throughout the town. The town’s sheriff disappears, leaving Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) in charge.
Jackson is a recent widow left to take care of his son, Joe (Joel Courtney). From the start, we see that Jackson and Joe are not close. Both are struggling to come to grips with life after losing the love of their lives. Joe finds comfort hanging out with his friends while Jackson buries himself in his work as a deputy sheriff. For much of the movie, their stories only occasionally intertwine. Both father and son become more deeply involved with the after affects of the train wreck, neither sharing in each other’s struggle to make sense of what is going on around or inside of them.
While a good half of the movie focuses mostly on the lives of the kids, their interactions, their making a movie, their budding relationships – the other half of the movie is sci-fi action. It feels like this should be the perfect mix for this type of a movie, but something is off. For instance, the first big action sequence is the train wreck. It must be the most dangerous train wreck ever, as train cars fly for what seems like minutes. The action is over the top and feels out of place when compared to the quiet moments we spend with the kids. All the kids are fine actors. None of them were intolerable to watch but neither were any of them much fun. The tone was overly serious with some lighter moments feeling forced or out of place. And maybe this is where nostalgia backfires. It’s either my nostalgia for films of the ’80s that tainted my feelings for Super 8’s tone or possibly J.J. Abrams’ misplaced nostalgia. Maybe Abrams’ misunderstood what made films like Goonies, Gremlins, Stand by Me, etc. so appealing. Those films were at times serious but never so much that they lost their sense of childlike wonder.
The production values of Super 8 didn’t help balance the tone of the film. Abrams’ is obsessed with lens flares and some baffling camera work that leaves his mark all over the film. Unfortunately, I often felt like I need to wipe clean those marks. While the lens flares in Abrams’ reinvigoration of the Star Trek film fit the overall look of the movie, with its futuristic gloss and shine, here they feel unnecessary at best. Rather than let the kids’ filmmaking escapade take center stage, we’re left to fend off excessive blue glares. In addition to lens flares there are numerous jump scares that are often followed up by extremely loud sound effects and flashy special effects. It’s in these moments I wonder if the intent is to be more of a sci-fi thriller than an adventure flick with sci-fi elements. The difference between the two is large and floating between them makes for an uneven tone. And, ultimately, the uneven tone made Super 8 feel to me like Abrams was trying to forcefully morph his modern day sensibilities with the nostalgia he and so many of us have for movies from the ’80s.
There are moments in Super 8 that are enjoyable. Moments that capture some of the magic I recall from films of my youth. The scene where the kids scheme to get their friend back and try to save the day in the process was fun and exciting. The small moments where Joe and Alice (Elle Fanning) fall for one another (even as their fathers forbid it) are genuine. The enthusiasm Charles (Riley Griffiths) has for making films is contagious. The ending, which I’m sure left many rolling their eyes, came closest to embracing both the joyous wonder that was missing from so much of the film. There are moments that are special in this film, but they compete with a melancholy and seriousness that overwhelms much of the rest. It’s a shame too, because Super 8 could’ve been great.