Super 8 is an old school throwback, like Lombardi’s Packers, Al Davis’ Raiders, the Chuck Daley Pistons. Hmmm. Am I really going to compare a movie with Elle Fanning in a lead role to the Detroit Bad Boys? Nah. Super 8 is more like John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins; THAT kind of old school.
The old school of Super 8 is the classic Steven Spielberg style of the 70s and early 80s; it’s the moviemaking style of Jaws, E.T., Poltergeist, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and most of all The Goonies. It’s all swelling music and lush photography. But it was always grounded in the familiar. Spielberg would shoot small town America, a Schwinn bike, a Three Musketeers candy wrapper the way Hitchcock would photograph a loaded pistol. The cinematic style was so popular it was the default setting for every other movie in the time period. Check this out. It’s the horror movie Prophecy from 1979. It’s about mutated bears on a rampage, something closer to Romero or Friday the 13th territory than E.T. But look how it opens.
You’d swear this was going to end being a misunderstanding with a cute little alien.
If you’re a fan of early Spielberg then Super 8 is a pleasure to watch. It’s got that same enchanted/everyday feel to it. But at the same time you remember the game changed and there are reasons why they don’t make ‘em like that any more. Going back to Wooden’s Bruins, yeah he was one of the greatest college coaches of all time. Yeah his teams were a beauty to watch for anyone who really loved the pure game of basketball. But remember after he retired he kept saying they should make the dunk illegal? There’s old school and there’s behind the times.
Super 8 isn’t that bad. It doesn’t make you scratch your head. But despite its strengths, and there are a lot of them, it’s missing some toughness. The scary alien does turn out to be misunderstood and it’s evil military who’s really the villain. It’s helpful to remember why the Spielberg style didn’t last. There was this guy called James Cameron who not only introduced a new attitude to sci-fi adventure but did it on a cheaper budget. Cameron is just as big a leftie as Spielberg, probably even bigger. But when he does evil military versus friendly aliens the result is Avatar. Need I say more?
But that’s not to say Super 8 is a waste of your dollars. Far from it. This film is gorgeous to look at. J.J. Abrams gets the look and feel of classic Spielberg. Just like in Close Encounters or E.T. we’re in small town America but it’s filmed with epic-ness. The column of smoke from an approaching wildfire looks like a giant made out of white mist. There’s a shot of just a row of single family homes at dusk and it reminds you of a time when people kept their doors unlocked. At night the empty fields around the town are oceans of black, mysterious but at the same time inviting. Spielberg back in the day made living in small town or suburban USA cool. There were alien visitors and lost pirate ships out there waiting to be discovered.
Then there’s the young cast. These kids are as good as the kids from E.T. or Goonies. Abrams doesn’t treat them as kids. He expects them to carry the picture and deliver some pretty tough lines. Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are getting most of the attention but Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Gabriel Basso and especially Riley Griffiths all deliver great performances. These kids are fun to be around and you really do care about them.
And we get some excellent sequences when the monster first starts to make its presence known. There is a lot of Spielberg in these scenes, particularly Jaws. The attack on the gas station was outstanding.
The story, well it’s just sort of there. Abrams, ironically the man who confused millions of TV watchers with Alias and Lost, tends to keep things stone axe simple with his movie projects. It’s pretty easy to figure out that it’s really the Air Force Colonel who’s the bad guy and not the alien. And Kyle Chandler does his best but in the end his stern, communication impaired father isn’t very sympathetic.
But what really hurts this movie is that it is too old school. This isn’t the early 1980s any more. The puppy love scenes between Fanning and Courtney would have been cute back in the day, but this is the era where 16 and Pregnant is a smash TV hit. As a result those scenes have an undercurrent of creepiness about them. You can’t just pretend that these two are only going to hold hands until they get to college.
Then there’s a lack of tension late in the movie. The alien monster, despite looking a lot like the Cloverfield creature, was never the bad guy. So as much as we like this band of young kids, there aren’t many instances where we truly fear for their safety. In the post Terminator world of 80s sci fi, everyone, even little kids became targets. Someone told me this movie was too dark to be Spielberg. But you could tell right away that Abrams wasn’t going to be playing things that tough.
Overall I really like this movie and would recommend it. It’s a lot of fun to enter the Wayback Machine and return to the era of Close Encounters and E.T. It’s a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there, though.
By Hell’s Grim Tyrant – Jabberhead, Movie Critic, SJ Contributing Author