It’s nice to be able to be surprised sometimes, and I won’t elaborate on that very general plot description for that very reason. Suffice it to say that, while not perfect (there are numerous contrivances and plot holes), it’s easy to see that Super 8 was something of a personal project for writer-director J.J. Abrams. Of the big-screen films he’s directed, it is clearly the one with the best script.
The movie could have played out as a glorified medley: it is a mash-up of elements from and homage to Steven Spielberg’s career pre-Schindler: components from Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), and the Spielberg-produced The Goonies (1985), are all woven into the fabric of the film’s plot. The cinematography, too, evokes the films made during the time the film is set in (though Abrams overdid it a little with the lense flares, even if I guess that’s his trademark now), and the fitting score by Michael Giacchino is intentionally reminiscent of the work John Williams produced in his heyday.
But it’s a credit to the screenplay that Super 8 does not feel like an outright copy of any of these. Certainly, nostalgia played a role for Abrams himself and many in his audience, and the film can’t exactly be called original. But the story holds together and manages to stand on its own.
That it does so is also thanks to an emotional core built around the male and female leads (played well by Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning, respectively). The necessity of moving on after loss and emotional damage is a theme threaded through the entire film. It centres on the young protagonists, who have both lost their mothers and have to contend with fathers who can’t properly deal with their own grief and heartbreak. But the theme is also expressed by some of the supporting characters and plays prominently into the film’s finale involving the science-fiction mystery that sets the plot into motion.
There are action sequences, of course, but in many ways, those scenes are the film’s worst. Not all, but some of them feel very perfunctory and rather over the top. I didn’t listen to the whole audio commentary on the Blu-ray disc, but I did listen to a segment commenting on an early action scene, in which the over-exaggeration was excused somewhat by the director saying that we were seeing not what really happened, but what the traumatised teenage protagonists remember of their experience. I can live with that explanation even if it doesn’t quite excuse how empty these sequences seem in comparison to the character-building stuff (and how little both aspects are tied together; the action scenes are more notable for botching character development than adding it).
An alternative interpretation I’m also partial to is that Super 8 is the movie the kids would have made had they had access to a blockbuster budget. That would certainly serve to illuminate why the film is a tad larger-than-life: its villains are more evil, its heroes more heroic, its monsters more frightening, its battles more destructive, the kids more capable and the adults more clueless than they would be in reality. There is very little subtlety to the action and to the adult characters; both do what the plot needs them to do, not always seamlessly. It’s the children who are painted with less of a broad brush and whose struggles and personalities are much more ambiguous and realistic and who are therefore more interesting and engaging characters.
Thankfully, most of the film’s running time focuses on the children and their evolving relationships. Compared to modern action films and compared to my expectations, there is really very little pure spectacle in the movie. That is a good thing. In the end, the movie remains a bit disjointed in its plot, its family drama and science fiction action aspects don’t mesh completely, and the thematic treatment can sometimes seem a little undercooked. But it works as a whole.
Maybe for his next (non-Trek) film, Abrams can write another script with similar levels of intimacy as Super 8 but less obvious cinematic influences. I said before the film stands on its own, and it does, but it will always be known as Abrams’ Spielberg pastiche. I don’t doubt he’s capable of delivering a reasonably intelligent film that combines heart, humour, action and originality; Mission: Impossible 3 (2006) and Star Trek (2009) both missed at least two of those components. With Super 8, he’s come closest so far.