Review by C.J. Bunce
Back in June, Super 8 was in theaters and Jason McClain discussed it here and noted the split in the film between the focus on the kids’ story vs. the focus on the adults. I didn’t see this one in the theater and after viewing on video I wish I had, but only for the spectacular train crash. Other than that, the film makes a great rental. For me, this film was a cross between Goonies, Cloverfield, E.T., the Extraterrestrial, and Close Encounter of the Third Kind. I found myself viewing this and questioning whether this was more of a J.J. Abrams movie or more of a Steven Spielberg movie. And I found it to be a lot of fun.
I agree with Jason’s review, that this could have been a film focusing totally on the kids’ story—kids trying to make a zombie film. Joel Courtney in the lead role, in his first film appearance, was cast perfectly as Joe Lamb—as every little kid who doesn’t get into trouble, tries to do the right thing, tries to be friends to everyone. The film inside the film didn’t need to be a zombie film, but zombies was as good a subject as any, and something the director could use because of the humor zombie make-up adds to the picture. And maybe because the film also wants to be a monster movie of the alien variety.
I also agree with Jason that you could cut all the adult themes and probably end up with a better picture. I find it puzzling that every film about differing genres that includes kids must have a one-parent family at the core. It used to be that all movies had two parents and two kids, and I understand over time why the change to more diverse families makes sense. But I can’t remember the last time a two adult, couple of kids family was pictured on film. They exist in real life so I’m not sure what the draw is for the barrage of broken families. You’d think Hollywood would mix it up a little. I expect filmmakers think it gives the film some weight. I usually find dwelling on family in this kind of film unnecessary and irrelevant to the plot–the father-son and father-daughter reunion pieces of the film here included.
But back to the good parts. The themes of young teens mimic the superb, classic kid film Goonies so much you could draw parallels through the whole movie. Young boys’ crushes on the older girl. Rescuing a friend. The desire for adventure and the decision to go off and “just do it.” The same themes were also addressed more seriously in Stephen King’s Stand By Me and less so in E.T., the Extraterrestrial. If Goonies was better at being a kids’ film it was probably because the adults only played the enemies and barely served another purpose in the plot. After all, in the context of a fictional adventure film, why not play into that natural tension between parents and kids? In E.T., the adults were primarily the enemies, too. In Stand By Me, again, no parents, just kids being kids. The change-up is Close Encounters—where the little boy in the film is kidnapped by the aliens. But even there the little kid parallels the real little kid story in the film–the little boy trying to get out, trapped inside the lead character played by Richard Dreyfuss. Close Encounters is the ultimate kids film about grown-ups. Dreyfuss wants to believe in aliens every bit as much as Elliott and Gerty in E.T. The kids in Super 8 aren’t longing for this kind of connection, they just want to be the kids they are.
As a ”horror-light” film, viewers will see similarities to the alien/monster pursuit in Cloverfield, and the alien/monster images from Cowboys & Aliens. I thought this was a fun genre-bending exercise and it worked better here than Cowboys & Aliens but not as well as in Cloverfield. I include Cloverfield in the discussion here because of the similar vibe throughout the last half of the movie, undoubtedly based on Abrams participation in both productions.
Super 8 should be looked back on later as a big film for Abrams. Where Star Trek 2009 was J.J. Abrams’ big-budget sci-fi feature, Cloverfield was his Blair Witch-type horror film, and Mission Impossible III was his post-Alias spy movie, Super 8 is Abrams’ take on Spielberg–it’s his Spielberg homage of sorts. I expect to see a boxed DVD set coming—Close Encounters (directed by Spielberg), then E.T. (directed by Spielberg), Goonies (written by Spielberg), War of the Worlds (directed by Spielberg) and then Super 8 (produced by Spielberg). Not so much a set of coming-of-age films as a set of solid kids-being-kids films. Although written and directed by Abrams, anyone would believe it was a Spielberg creation, were it written and directed by Spielberg. Looking back on Abrams’ short list of films, it’s as if Abrams is a director mimicking the style of others. As style goes, he certainly doesn’t have an established niche yet. The only exception is those lousy lens flares he can’t seem to avoid. You have to wonder if he sees something in those glares we don’t see, as we are blinded multiple times mid-film. But it seems to be his signature. A lens flare is even in his poster for the film shown above. Bizarre.
If you pulled Goonies out of our fictitious boxed set, you have a nice series of alien films—Close Encounters, about meeting aliens, E.T. about befriending aliens, Super 8, about fearing aliens, although you have to empathize with the alien in Super 8, as with past Spielberg aliens, and then War of the Worlds at the other end of the spectrum opposite E.T., where the aliens are entirely and unquestionably our enemy.
Team Fanning also follows through again with a gaggle of teen actresses who only seem to get better with each new sibling to take the stage. Here, Elle Fanning plays the tough teen with a chip on her shoulder, a role done before several times in films, but usually by male characters played by the likes of like Heath Ledger or Matt Dillon. In one scene she switches from playing a kid character to playing an actress practicing for a scene to be filmed on the Super 8 camera, and the switch is as well done as you could hope for with any performer. Ryan Lee in a small role as Joe’s friend Cary was a notable stand-out, playing the future pyromaniac who looks like a mini-Tom Petty. The rest of the characters are a motley mix of typical honest, good, nerdy kids.
Reflecting back on the films about kids mentioned above, I have a note for the current onslaught of child actors, especially those playing lanky, skinny, fat, odd, etc. kids: Just check out what happened to the child actors in the above films. Drew Barrymore who was Gerty in E.T. is now a Cover Girl model and was a Charlie’s Angel. The chubby kid, Jerry O’ Connell, in Stand By Me ended up as the leading man-looking guy who starred in Sliders and several later series. Jeff Cohen who played Chunk in Goonies became an L.A. lawyer. Sean Astin who played the lead in Goonies ended up as the beloved Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings. And the oldest teen in Goonies played by Josh Brolin, was nominated for an Academy Award. My point? Awkward teens take note: Life gets better. The old child actor’s curse doesn’t exist anymore.
As science fiction goes, Super 8 stands up as a good film, as a horror film it’s a little light, as an adventure film it’s better than good, but as a film about kids, Super 8 is a solid, entertaining picture that will keep the attention of viewers of any age.