It’s safe to say that many filmgoers will always measure newcomer sci-fi epics by the standards of the classics that came before them. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and the now thirty-to-forty year old peers that reserve warm fuzzy spots in hearts around the globe. So it was both interesting and completely logical that Steven Spielberg, creator of these titan classics, would use the talents of J.J. Abrams, undeniably a contemporary lord of genre, to, in essence, create a new film that makes tribute to his own triumphs.
Super 8 rides on our nostalgia for blockbusters that weren’t about who had the biggest guns, it’s almost invasive. Even if you weren’t alive in the late 70s, and even if you’ve somehow skipped every film helmed by Stevie, there’s plenty of familiar, childhood moments implanted to make your soul purr. So that’s why we paid attention. How does Super 8 reel in all in?
In the late 1970s, a small Ohio town is rattled when a member of its own community causes a massive train wreck near the outskirts of town. The locals become unsettled when things, pets and people begin to disappear en masse, accompanied by the sudden occupancy of tight-lipped military officials. The only people who have even the slightest hint at what is underway are a group of young kids who accidentally witnessed the strange incident while filming a scene for their rag-tag home-made zombie flick.
The set-up is definitely enchanting. Anyone who remembers the charismatic energy of being a kid making their first zombie movie (What? Anyone else?) are going to take a real puncture of sweet, sweet nostalgia. And if you were a late 70s child whose room was littered with monster magazines and models then you may need to be wary of a complete overdose. The kids themselves are a smidgen more Freaks and Geeks than Goonies, a posse of nerdy outcasts whose movie efforts have scored them a shot with the hottest girl at school (not to mention her useful car.) The first act is steady and charm heavy, while some of these sprouts are a bit on the cartoonish side, the way issues line up feels natural and endearing.
And then comes the train wreck.
Like, the actual train wreck. Which is awesome! The train wreck scene is preposterously mind blowing, and you’ll likely never see destruction of a single vehicle so awesome and absurd. But it also marks the beginning of chapters where Super 8 starts to lose its footing. I understand though. J.J. Abrams is a modern day blockbuster man. His genre brand demands as much character drama as it does windows for special effects and aggressive mystery. Spielberg’s brand (at least the one that cemented him as the legend he is) is almost entirely heart, relying on lingering mystique, using special effects only when needed. This tangled game of obligations takes a heavy, deadly toll on the pacing.
Suddenly what started to look like just a groovy gang of kids filming a movie, becomes surrounded by another movie. It starts to feel like not just two different entities but several entirely. Multiple roles become increasingly injected with melodrama, and conflicts that were introduced and hinted at early on infest and root into more and more. On top of this, the otherworldly visitor overstays its mystery phase, the characters prolonged obliviousness becomes more absurd as the audience becomes more aware of what’s happening. A lot of elements, facts and concepts are jumbled and clumped, some suffocating and others becoming far too distracted.
It’s a shame. So much about Super 8 works really well. On top of a truly uncanny concept, the cast, the kids especially, are a joy. Riley Griffiths as Charles Kaznyk, the youthfully psychotic director of the meta-film, is annoying in all the right ways, I’m positive he’s some sort of in-joke jab at others in the industry. Elle Fanning will be seeing a lot of work, she effortlessly dominates quite a handful of the scenes. Abrams isn’t totally asleep at the wheel either, playing your fond memories like a synth. When he’s using your own nostalgia against you, he’s got you in a chokehold.
Some people may compare the level of homage to Tarantino, but it’s not nearly that literal. This in a lot of ways is a spiritual sister, companion piece to Spielberg’s genre work, but it’s too much at once. It’s a Spielbergian flu, completely congested in combining his best elements into a weak monster. Super 8 could-have-been/should-have-been the inspiring original product in a summer with so little of it, this year’s Inception, but it’s only putting its efforts towards recreating the Spielberg magic, imitating it. It doesn’t manage to make its own.