Tuesday, December 06, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Super 8 (2011)

"You can't go home again" wrote Thomas Wolfe. 

And if nothing else, J.J. Abrams' expensively-mounted Steven Spielberg pastiche, Super 8 (2011) proves his point.  

This is a science fiction film I wanted to love, and more than that, wanted to love deeply.  My ardent desire to love Super 8 stems from my admiration for Spielberg the filmmaker and also from my feelings of affection for the long-lost days of my own childhood; the days of model-building, amateur movie-making, and middle school friends.

But as much as Super 8 implores modern audiences to "relive the memories" in the spirit of a Kodak advertisement featured in the film, it ultimately lacks the humanity of Spielberg's impressive cinematic oeuvre.  Despite his rampant sentimentalism, Spielberg's films are almost universally constructed  upon solid stories, on tales that hang together and, more than that, touch the heart.   

By contrast,  Super 8 feels more like a collection of ingredients that, finally, don't gel into something coherent or meaningful.  The movie simply doesn't stay with you after you've screened it because, finally, it has nothing new or interesting to say.  If nostalgia is the most useless of emotions then Super 8 -- a non-Spielberg Spielberg movie -- is the most useless of movies.

In terms of specifics, Super 8 dramatizes two interconnected tales. One is about a group of friends who throw everything (including the kitchen sink...) into the making of their own backyard horror film.  The other, far less interesting story concerns an alien who escapes from military custody and nearly destroys the friends' town. 

In the latter story, Super 8's creature or "monster" conveniently represents whatever the screenplay happens to need at any given moment -- either horror or wonder, by the roll of the dice --  and never becomes a consistent-seeming presence, or  a character as memorable or colorful as the beasties depicted in Jaws (1975), E.T. (1982), Close Encounters (1978) or Jurassic Park (1993).

I harbor no enmity for J.J. Abrams as a filmmaker -- not even for his widely ridiculed overuse of "lens flare -- but Super 8 by-and-large confirms my suspicion about him as a popular filmmaker.  He understands form and style quite well, but doesn't quite "get" substance.  

In other words,  the director knows very precisely how to make a product that on a superficial level resembles something else you already know and like: a Star Trek movie that feels like Star Trek, for example. But in some cases, Abrams doesn't quite capture the heart of the thing he so colorfully simulates.  Consequently, something deep and human is sacrificed in his vision.  Occasionally you don't notice this facet of Abrams' work because the execution of his mimicry is so dynamic and accomplished.You get distracted by the bells and whistles.

Super 8 has a lot of bells and whistles. But what it needed was heart.

"Bad things happen... but you can still live."

Super 8 tells the story of young Joe Lamb (Joe Courtney), a boy who lives in small town Ohio and is fourteen years old in the summer of 1979.

As the movie commences (with a great first shot), Joe's mother has died in an industrial accident, and a mourning Joe lives with his in-denial father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), the local police deputy. 

While working on an amateur zombie movie with his friends, Joe -- the project's make-up artist -- begins to fall for lovely Alice (Elle Fanning), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and daughter to the man who indirectly caused his mother's death.

While shooting their Super-8 movie at a local train station, Alice, Joe and their friends witness a horrifying train wreck.  Something monstrous escapes from the wreckage, and begins to wreak havoc upon the small town...

"I know that's your camera, sir, but technically, that's my film."

Super 8 is constructed primarily upon two pillars: Spielberg nostalgia and late 70s/early 80s nostalgia.  Both facets of the film give the enterprise a considerable lift, even if they can't, in the final analysis, cloak the superficiality of the film's emotional canvas. 

In particular, the production design milieu of Super 8 is truly splendid, a careful evocation of the Carter/Reagan era that brings back many fond memories for me. 

I was a kid of about ten-years old at this time in our nation's history, and so for me the film's setting sparked some powerful memories.  The model kits, the movie posters, and the toys in young Joe Lamb's bedroom are items that I remember well and that speak to my personal sense of nostalgia.  I also enjoyed seeing characters return home to modest split level ranches rather than outrageously designed, glitzy McMansions.  America has changed a lot in three decades.

Refreshingly, Abrams' film boasts a sense of humor about this era too. One droll moment involving the Sony Walkman captures almost perfectly the differences between 1979 and 2011. I appreciated all these period touches and references, and the movie made me feel wistful for the freedom of youth.  Super 8 depicts a world without e-mail, cell phones, and video game platforms (save for Atari), in which, as a kid, you really and truly felt free to explore your own imagination.  No officially arranged "play dates" were necessary.  The afternoons, following school, seemed to last forever, and you didn't have to worry about updating your Facebook profile. 

We didn't realize it at the time, but today this bygone age seems like one of pure innocence.

Super 8 also captures well that delicate period of adolescence when boys start to outgrow their toys but are too young, really, to understand girls or the reasons why girls make them feel a certain way.  For many adolescents, the focus on movies-- on movie making explicitly -- proves a perfect bridge between childhood and adulthood.   With movies, you can still "play" as you would with toys and -- if you're lucky -- get girls in on the act too.  My later teen years were spent in this endeavor, as I made home movies with my friends; home movies with titles like The Great Can Opener Massacre and Rock'n'Roll Vampires from Hell.

So I really do get what Super 8 aims to recreate.  I love the period touches, and I admire the excavation of a special time in "this boy's life."

The film's second creative pillar, Spielberg's aesthetic, is also impressively rendered.  In Super 8, we see all the ingredients that made Spielberg's work (especially circa 1975 - 1985) so powerful to a generation of film lovers. 

For instance, there are scenes in Super 8 of a disconcerting military presence in suburban America, as also depicted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.  There are kids on bikes, pedaling from adventure to adventure as seen in E.T. and the Spielberg produced Poltergeist (1982).  There's also the Spielberg convention I call "This boy's bedroom," in which items decorating the bedroom reveal much about a boy's interest in magic, movies, monsters and pop-culture.  We saw "this boy's bedroom" featured in everything from Close Encounters to E.T., to Spielberg productions like Poltergeist and Gremlins.  Spielberg-inspired efforts such as The Monster Squad (1986) and Invaders from Mars (1986) featured the convention too.  

Super 8 also gains a lot of mileage from "broken" families, a Spielberg tradition in The Sugarland Express (1971) E.T. and even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).  Abrams also knowingly evokes Spielberg-ian film compositions, namely the commonly-seen "Jurassic Park"-styled shot in which characters gaze upward, mouths agape, at something wondrous, off-camera.

Most importantly, however, Super 8 involves the idea of something alien or foreign invading normal suburban America, whether that something be a shark, an alien, ghosts, Nazis, or monsters.  It's not a coincidence that Super 8 takes place in 1979, the year of the Three Mile Island disaster.   Something was roiling under "normal" life in America of this span...and it seemed mysterious and possibly frightening.

I enjoyed all of Abrams' Spielberg-ian homages here, I must admit.  And yet I kept feeling, as I wrote above, that in Super 8 I was screening the work of a man who understood surface detail, but not deeper meaning.  And that, furthermore, the story (by Abrams) had been crafted exclusively to make room for all the homage, without sufficient regard for internal logic and consistency.

Considered rationally, the narrative makes precious little sense.  For instance, the audience is asked to believe that a tormented alien who can read humans minds has never, before interfacing with Joe, encountered an individual who has experienced and understood loss and personal pain.  You see, contact with the boy and the boy's advice that "bad things happen, but you can keep living" prove the very impetus that redirects the angry alien towards escape rather than vengeance.  The alien puts down his pastime of eating human body parts, and decides to phone...er...go home.

This resolution feels like a creative cop-out, especially since the creature already boasts access to Elle Fanning's Alice, and certainly she -- having lost a mother too -- understands the nature of pain.  Why is it that after reading so many human minds, the monster only achieves closure through rapport with Joe?  This whole idea -- upon which the plot resolution hinges -- is undeveloped at best and contrived at worst.

Another poorly-constructed moment in the film's third act finds Joe's father -- without explanation or apparent precipitating cause -- deciding to forgive the man who, through negligence, is responsible for his wife's death.  This change of heart is supposed to be a heartwarming moment, but there's no lead-up to it, and no character growth that reaches a particular crescendo.  Spielberg movies may be relentlessly sentimental, but this quality of his work is usually earned.  The character "growth" in Super 8 feels capricious and mechanical by comparison.

Super 8's emotional climax seems off in some significant way too.  Joseph must choose to let go of the locket that belonged to his dead mother.  This piece of jewelry is all that he's got left of her now, but the movie's point -- as seen in the monster's epiphany -- is "letting go."  The monster lets go of his pain at Joe's urging, and ascends to the stars.   In this same spirit, Joe releases his mother's locket and lets go of his pain and loss too. 

Again, I get the idea: don't hold onto the past.  Live in the present.  And yet this message is utterly incongruous and somewhat insincere in a movie that lingers -- nay wallows -- in the notion of  the past.  The whole movie lives in so-called "better" days.  It  holds on tightly to the fairy tale of a "simpler past," so tell me again why Joe should willingly let go of the only tangible memory of his lost mother?  

This valedictory moment, like so many others in the films, does not ring true on an emotional level.  When he's twenty, Joe will really wish he held onto that locket...

The few original touches that Abrams brings to Super 8 also tend, in some way, to work against the film's spirit.  The big special effects set piece of the film is a spectacular train crash.  This crash doesn't feel Spielbergian in any sense of the word.  Spielberg's style is best described as grounded reality plus a touch of magic.  A simple American town encounters a voracious great white shark that is almost supernatural, for example.  A boy meets an alien who is lost, and needs a friend...just like him, for another.  Spielberg's films are grounded in our reality, and there's usually only one magical quality involved, so that believability is maintained. 

Here, by contrast, the train crash brazenly defies the laws of physics and is so over-the-top catastrophic you can't believe for a moment that anyone would survive it, let alone children bystanders nearby, at the scene.  Train cars blow apart, launch through the air like missiles, explode into towers of flame...and the movie loses every bit of grounded reality it has painstakingly crafted up until that point.  A train crash of this cartoon nature belongs in another movie, but not in a Spielberg homage.

The other "new" touch in Super 8 involves the depiction of the alien.  He has been tortured by America for years, and is angry about his treatment.  This disposition seems to reflect the post-Bush II, War on Terror mindset, not Ronald Reagan's more noble mindset of the 1980s. In May of 1988, President Reagan declared his desire to "bring an end to the abhorrent practice of torture" worldwide by supporting the Convention Against Torture and Inhuman Treatment or Punishment, for instance.   The point of this rumination is that back in the "simpler" 1980s, we believed we were the good guys, and Spielberg films reflected this steadfast belief.  Nobody in the American military tortured the aliens in Close Encounters.  We feared E.T. would be captured and studied in the 1982 film, but I don't know that we feared our government would actively and sadistically torture the guy.   I mean...we didn't think he was going to be water boarded.  The torture angle  is a new touch that reflects our times, but alas also seems out of synch with the Spielberg-ian painting kit in Super 8.

I would hate to give the impression that I think Super 8 is a terrible or worthless film.  It isn't.  The parts of the film I enjoyed and admired the most involved the children working hard to make their zombie movie.  Over the end credits, their final cut gets played, and it is a funny, affectionate, imaginative delight.  All the performances in the film, particularly by the children, are very strong as well.

But the movie's story doesn't really make much sense, no emotional connection is ever forged with the badly-designed, ugly monster, and the score by Michael Giacchino falls well short of the standard set by John Williams for Spielberg.  Most damningly, the film resolutely lacks a sense of wonder.  I remember very well the days of Spielberg's magic; the days when he made one seemingly perfect blockbuster movie after another.  He went from strength to strength, from Jaws to Close Encounters to Raiders of the Lost Ark (let's forget 1941 for the moment...) to E.T., and made movie fans for life out of children of my generation.   The man can do wonder, and do it well.

Super 8 feels more like second tier, quasi-Spielberg fare, like Lady in White (1988) or The Monster Squad.  It knows what it wants to be and what it should be, but it just doesn't quite have the chops -- or the emotional honesty -- to play on the master's level.  I held high expectations for Super 8, it's true, but that's part of the Spielberg magic.  He rarely disappoints.  You can't make a movie based on his work, and expect not to be held to his standard of excellence.

The child director in Super 8 keeps trumpeting the idea that "production values" will make or break his film, but of course, that's not the case.  Production values do not a masterpiece make. 

Someone needed to tell J.J. Abrams to stop obsessing about production values and turn on his heart light instead.


  1. I understand your points concerning the film, John. SUPER 8 is an homage, of sorts. Writer J.J. Abrams does get a number of things right (as you point out in your review), less so maybe as a director. And Steven Spielberg always did like to feature broken families in his early films, almost as often as Disney gleefully killed off a parent in their animated films -- oh yeah, Abrams does that here, too.

    My chief complaint remains the injury results of two head-on collisions (one with a train, for chrissakes) in the film for characters in 70s vintage vehicles. Simply, they were unbelievable and took me out of movie for a bit each time. Believe me, I rode in enough of them back in the day and they wouldn't just leave a scratch on your head.

    That said, there were moments I truly did enjoy. Elle Fanning's role was star-making, IMO. And some of the kid interactions and dialogue was spot-on and memorable (how Abrams' worked in Martin's "Oh, drugs are so bad!" reaction was priceless and cracked me and my kids up royally). Yes, SUPER 8 pales to the real thing. Heck, even the current Spielberg does that on occasion now as a filmmaker and executive producer (the less said about his involvement with Michael Bay and the TRANSFORMERS movies the better).

    Thanks for the fine review, John.

  2. claudiu8:18 AM

    Hi John,

    Try to play it at 80% speed (VLC Media would do that for you), stay with the kids and sidestep everything else. You'll get a far better movie.

  3. I agree with you that this film lacked a real emotional base -- except for Elle Fanning's performance, which was, as le0pard said, "star-making." That is pretty much how I'd review just about every major release aimed at the "family" audience today. Loads of wild effects that steer clear of the sense of childlike wonder (and also widely careen away from reality) and aim for that gap-mouth look of awe of the parents. That train wreck wrecked my eyes from all the eye-rolling it induced (Really? A collision so violent that the impact sent the entire row of train cars flying through the air, and the guy in the truck survived?!) However, I was able to sufficiently suspend my disbelief to enjoy this film, mostly due to the great performances and dialogue between the kids. I have such trouble with kids in movies, these days, who are "wiser than their years," only because the writers want to demonstrate how clever they are, themselves. Super 8 sounded and acted like the kids I knew, and the kid I was, back then. And this is probably the reason I came out really enjoying Super 8.

    However, my trouble with your overall thumbs down is that I am still surprised you didn't have this same reaction to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There was the same lack of real emotion threading throughout (the Lithgow segments were much too easy, as well was the corporate bad guy hatred), and the action sequences leaned heavily towards the extreme (why did the police so quickly turn to a military force for a bunch of escaped apes?) Unfortunately, for me, ROTPOTA lacked ANY wonder in it at all, and the rubber-faced apes of the original still draw me in much more than the reality of the CGI apes.

    These "family" movies aren't made, anymore, for the child, nor the child in us, but more for the adult longing for the sense of wonder he used to have with these kinds of films. It's a false sense of wonder, too, which is induced by these wild action sequences that leave the audience with the duel action of trying to close their gaped mouth AND scratch their puzzled head (like the train crash) or temporarily removes the audience from the narrative in wonder of how, technically, they created the effects (the ultra real underwater life of Nemo, or the life like flowing hair of Monsters Inc.).

    There are so many films which capture my inner child that were made with sub-par effects and low budgets. I chalk that up to masterful storytelling -- something, which I agree with you on, that J.J. Abrams lacks.

    [An added disagreement over Lady in White, which I loved for it's wealth of childhood wonder and a great deal of emotional honesty. The funny thing is, I had an argument with a fellow film student, at the time, over the film's finale -- which had the Lady in White burst into a ball of light and fly off into space. He argued that it was too fantastical for a ghost story. I argued it was appropriate, because the entire movie was recollected through the wondrous eyes of a child. Sure, it lacked the production values of a Hollywood film, but this film had more fodder for childlike wonder than Super 8 and ROTPOTA combined.]

  4. Part I

    I won't be kind here.

    First, the central issue -- the elephant in the room -- nostalgia: I’m quite sick of it, frankly. I think it’s become a poison of today’s popular movie culture*. It’s a perfectly natural, reflective emotion, of course, and I have no qualms about reserving a place for my memories of youth, or maintaining a certain spirit of those memories. But, ultimately, memories belong in the past. Movies are a part of said past, a part of our childhood. This is not to say that films we loved then should not be enjoyed as adults, nor that certain basic qualities of these films (involving story, substance, technique) cannot or should not be carried over into today‘s films.

    But to simply synthesize the emotional experience of yesteryear‘s cinema, as we remembered it in our youth, for its sake alone is nothing but a desperate grab for emptiness, revealing just how shallow the sentimentalism of nostalgia truly is. Abrams’ Super 8, to me, serves as a prime example. This is perhaps the most exceedingly artificial film-going experience I’ve ever had, from start to finish. This is not a movie, this is not even a healthy homage; it is a mere collection of overtly harkened “movie moments” with no real connective tissue storywise.

    This film is a mess in every sense of the word. A golden opportunity for a MacGuffin that would have been narratively and thematically perfect was totally wasted. I’m not sure what Abrams was thinking when he scripted this, how he could have possibly missed it. To that which I am referring, consider the film’s very title: Super 8. Imagine someone pitches you the idea for a movie about a buddy-team of kids who are making their own 8mm home movie, about aliens or zombies or whatnot, only to capture by accident footage of an actual extraterrestrial, be it UFO, a crash landing, or, in this case, an alien escape from some train wreckage. Okay, great. That’s actually a pretty awesome premise, I’ll give Abrams that much. But what makes it awesome is the setup concerning the 8mm itself. I’m really not too fond of ranting my own versions on how a storyline should have played, but in this case I’m all but left with no choice.

    The cherry setup for Super 8 is right there: the 8mm quickly becomes both the central mystery and the driving plot device. When the military arrives to clean up their top secretes, they soon discover that a group of local kids possess footage of the alien. At the same time, or a couple scenes prior, the kids themselves watch the footage with shock and wonder ...the glimpse of something extraordinary ...Was that a monster? Some secret government science experiment run amok? An alien from outer space? They’re not sure. But when the military shows up and starts investigating the town, it becomes clear that the 8mm footage is what they’re after.

    The narrative that ensues is your classic kid adventure involving, perhaps, a mini rural road trip with scenes of hiding and near escapes from soldiers or government spooks. The journey could eventually lead the kids back to their town or to some other local area for the big climax, take your pick. The point here is that the 8mm footage is what’s driving the narrative, giving the story focus and momentum. The alien itself wreaking havoc around the town (or county), even leading to an evacuation, could still work as the parallel narrative, with the sheriff dad having to deal with both.

  5. Part II

    But what does Abrams give us instead? What actually happens throughout the bulk midsection of the movie? Essentially, nothing. Super 8 meanders about in such a way where the showmanship is out of whack and character behavior/motivations often feel nonsensical. Yes, the train wreck sequence was absolutely unnecessary. Does anyone remember any Michael Bay explosions during Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.? Neither do I, because none were needed. Because, as you mentioned, a film like Super 8 is about returning audiences to wholesome, familiar setting that feels real, and to lead them -- linked to our young protagonists -- through a series of dangers and thrills relative to what a kid would find thrilling amidst his own small town adventures. That doesn’t mean you can’t gradually build the excitement, even to the point where tanks show up and start blasting the alien from afar, but such an elaborate train disaster a mere 20 minutes into the film, with our kid heroes dead center, completely offsets the tone of your adventure. To make a crude sexual analogy, it’s like premature ejaculation -- Abrams blows his wad way too soon.

    The train wreck scene would have worked fine as a low-key derailment, perhaps happening just off-screen, as the kids run and duck behind the station. Instead, they’re thrown into the war zone equivalent, and what’s so damning is how the story picks up the very next day and we see these kids going about their ordinary lives as if what they’d just survived the night before was an event to be easily processed and put aside. I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t feel credible. These kids would be traumatized having experienced such chaos. Furthermore is the fact that they’re town is now being overrun by both the military and strange occurrences such as power outages, missing dogs, missing people and destroyed property. And what do these kids do? What’s their main motivation? To continue filming their zombie movie.

    So what could have been the prime narrative device -- the home movie conceit -- is now just dead weight. I mean, really, who cares at this point about Martin’s stupid film competition? All this exciting stuff is happening and the audience wants these kids to be caught up in it, on the run, trying to figure things out. But instead we’re saddled with stagnant scenes of kids going to other kid’s houses, putting on make-up, bickering over girlfriend opportunities, crying over home movies of mom. The whole inspiration for Super 8 was Abrams’ love for the home-filmmaking of his youth, and such a strong theme could have resonated so much more centrally had it been tied to the crux of the story. But it flounders.

    When, two-thirds of the way into the film, Joe and Martin finally see the monster footage, it doesn’t matter because we the audience have already seen the monster ourselves. And it doesn’t go anywhere -- no stakes are raised -- because, well, the military guys are never aware that such footage even exists. It’s of no consequence whatsoever. Superficial 8 would have been a more apt title. An earlier scene between Joe and Alice ends with a white alien cube vibrating to life and shooting a whole through Joe’s bedroom wall. Do they investigate? Does Joe mention this to Martin or the others? Nope. It’s just something really neat that happens, only to be quickly forgotten in favor of other misplaced character interactions. Again, it’s just Abrams aiming for “movie moments”, but without knowing how to arrange them. He doesn’t even seem to know what they mean.

  6. Part III

    Other elements of the story seem haphazard as well. Mr. Woodward, the biology teacher, is a wasted character. Imagine if the film had begun, post Joe’s mother’s wake, with the kids in their classroom listening to Mr. Woodward. His character is introduced properly, in an ordinary situation, while at the same time hinting at something ominous or mysterious. Perhaps he appears distracted during class or is depicted as a haunted man in general, or both. The point is, he’s established as an intriguing question mark for the audience. He makes an impression. Later scenes with him at the train wreck, being interrogated by the military, and when his back-story involvement with the alien is revealed, genuinely matter. There’s a setup of the character, an investment and a series of payoffs. But Abrams cuts the legs out from that aspect of the story, rendering Woodward a mere plot point.

    And then there’s the whole extended bit where Joe’s dad, Jack, is taken prisoner at the military base; this, too, goes absolutely nowhere. Jack escapes (more unnecessary explosions) then teams up with Louis Dainard, thus setting up for the audience how the two men will put aside their shared past and work together to rescue their kids. Except they don’t rescue their kids. They don’t do anything. They just show up in the last scene and commence with some hugging. Therefore, Jacks imprisonment, daring escape and union with old foe was, once again, of no consequence. None of it mattered.

    There’s also some ill-proportioned writing regarding Joe and Martin’s character roles, as Abrams seemed to have written them backwards. It would have played much simpler and stronger dramatically speaking had Joe been the one making his movie, instead of being the model kit guy. He’s the main protagonist, the projection of Abrams as a boy with dreams of cinema, and it would have made a better kind of sense had he obsessed with his movie as a means to cope subconsciously with the loss of his mother, also simplifying and strengthening the conflict with his dad; being forced away from his filmmaking into football school.

    A few other, minor elements ring false by way of feeling forced, including one too many swear words from the kids. Yes, we get it, they’re supposed to be real, scraggly adolescents from a realish time and place, the not-so parental controlled kids from next door, down the street, any-town USA. But it somehow feels too blatant and too calculated, though, admittedly, this could be an impossible criticism on my part.

  7. Part IV

    As far has his technical skills are concerned, Abrams strikes me as a “buzz word” type of director; that is, when words are made into imagery. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. It’s also a sore reminder that you’re not seeing the real thing. Of course, directors aspire visually to their icons all the time, but the best do so with measured discipline and without reducing their aesthetics to the level of mere imitation. Abrams has reduced Spielberg’s hallmark iconographies into a collection of visual catchphrases: the attempted in-camera blocking, lateral tracking shots of people walking against backgrounds of active extras, the push-ins galore, starry-eyed kids looking up-and-off into the distance, the slow over-creep of the nighttime town below.

    It’s all there, but only in the cosmetic sense. Ironically, what few, personal stylistic flourishes Abrams does maintain, including his now infamous lens flare exaggerations, feels rather refreshing amidst the constant mimicry. Speaking of which, likewise can be said of Michael Giacchino; John Ottman’s score for Superman Returns actually does a better job integrating directly into Williams’ work without sounding cheap.

    I realize that I'm coming across as being extremely harsh on Abrams, but, truth be told, I'm actually more annoyed and downright perplexed by Spielberg himself, who happens to be one of my three favorite directors (I believe I've since mentioned the other two in the same manner). If it had just been Abrams on his own, this movie would have played like an earnest love letter to Spielberg’s films, albeit a love letter poorly written. But with Spielberg as the immediate producer and primary input guy, the whole thing feels like a love letter...to himself. It’s like watching a circle-jerk between Spielberg and Abrams, ultimately, for Spielberg’s pleasure.

    I should also fair things out a bit by saying that, of Spielberg’s unofficial ‘Suburban Trilogy’, I think Poltergeist is by far the superior, as I consider that film a stroke of madcap genius, while neither Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. would make my favorites list from the director’s filmography; and they’re clearly the two for which Abrams has proven his intentions when making this film, though there are some other directors evoked as well, including Romero and even a dash of Carpenter (check The Fog). I don’t know; this movie just rubbed me the wrong way. I can’t argue that it was made without any heart or passion. It’s just ...I honestly don’t think Abrams knows what he’s doing. At least it wasn’t as bad as Star Trek

    * = The Star Wars prequels and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull excelled at returning to much beloved franchise worlds, but did so organically, with new and interesting ideas. And they were hated for it, because “It’s not the same, like when I was a kid!” -- “I don‘t like different!”

  8. Cannon, if John ever needs a "guest" reviewer, you've got my vote. I thought it would be more of a "Zapruder film with aliens" with the kids being chased by some shadow govt. organization. I wanted to like it more than I did. Thanks for the review John.

  9. I dunno, I loved this film and was able to even get past some of the more ludicrous flights of fancy. John, you write:

    "For instance, the audience is asked to believe that a tormented alien who can read humans minds has never, before interfacing with Joe, encountered an individual who has experienced and understood loss and personal pain."

    If memory serves, wasn't he constantly in government clutches and we are led to believe poked and prodded by uncaring scientists and military types until he made a Vulcan mind-meld with the scientist who later became a school teacher. But other than that, we are led to believe that he didn't encounter anybody else sympathetic to his plight, which I can accept.

    You said:

    "Another poorly-constructed moment in the film's third act finds Joe's father -- without explanation or apparent precipitating cause -- deciding to forgive the man who, through negligence, is responsible for his wife's death. This change of heart is supposed to be a heartwarming moment, but there's no lead-up to it, and no character growth that reaches a particular crescendo."

    Well, I think you do some inkling of his change of heart when he has that big blow-out with his son who tells him that he doesn't understand him at all. I think that was an indication of his father softening on his position. Also, once things heat up and the father realizes what is truly at stake, he realizes that life is too short to have all this bad blood. Not to mention, when he finally forgives the other man, it is hardly a heartwarming moment. They aren't exactly hugging it out and sharing beers. It is still a pretty tense moment with very little emotion conveyed. These guys have a long way to go before they're having each other over BBQ.

    You also said:

    "Super 8's emotional climax seems off in some significant way too. Joseph must choose to let go of the locket that belonged to his dead mother. This piece of jewelry is all that he's got left of her now, but the movie's point -- as seen in the monster's epiphany -- is "letting go." The monster lets go of his pain at Joe's urging, and ascends to the stars. In this same spirit, Joe releases his mother's locket and lets go of his pain and loss too."

    Yeah, that kinda bothered me, too. I haven't listened to the audio commentary for the film so I don't know if Abrams justifies or explains what the purpose of that is. I understand the intent - that Joe is letting go of his pain and loss but it seems like just too important of a keepsake to let go of.