If J.J. Abrams’ previous directorial effort, Star Trek, represented the thematic, narrative, and stylistic integrity of everything to love about his television phenomenon, Lost, his most recent film, Super 8, embodies everything unsettling and disappointing about the culmination of that epic series.
Many nights did Lost fanatics spend trying to convince themselves that a given episode was great and meaningful, despite it seemingly having fallen flat or worse. Zealous and loyal hearts determined to overcome reeling minds. Sometimes it required looking at and appreciating the bigger picture. Sometimes it simply took denial then forgiveness.
A long-running television show, however, is like a baseball team. You can lose the fans with a poor performance or weak episode one night (or one season) and then win them all back the next with a rousing victory. A movie is a one shot deal. Either it succeeds on its own merits and in its individual context or it fails. There is no pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and bounce back.
The variable in the equation alluded to above is, of course, expectation. The more we expect from our favorite team or TV show or filmmaker, the more harshly we judge any subjective imperfections or failings. The more personally we take the disillusionment.
A lot was expected of Super 8. Not too much, but a lot. It was promoted as a coming-of-age thriller with fantasy elements, taking place in the late 70’s, and as produced by the arguable master and creator of the genre, Steven Spielberg (E.T., The Goonies). Spielberg has an exceptional track record working with young casts and in reviving the nostalgia for and atmosphere of bygone eras. With the imaginative, exciting lens of J.J. Abrams capturing his own story, there was no reason not to have but the highest hopes.
The ads looked riveting. The questions raised in these cinematic peeks and previews increased the tantalization factor exponentially: Why did all the neighborhood dogs run away? Who or what removed all the car engines in town? Why was that miniature Leif Garret with the braces declaring, “Oh my Gooood!” as his bug-eyed face was enveloped by the headlights of a speeding train.
Although everyone who plunks down ten bucks for a movie ticket expects a worthwhile return on the investment, Super 8 seemed to promise an exceptional treat, guaranteed to satisfy.
After a strong, brooding march toward the central crisis, with a fine crew of young actors imitating the casual intensity and buffoonery of adolescence, the film begins to provide answers to those questions listed above. We learn that our young, likeable (if not, predictably familiar) band of assorted geeks witnessed an event while shooting their labor-of-love zombie flick. They film with a Super 8 camera, hence the title, though their movie is more incidental to the plot than essential. What they unknowingly observed while impossibly dodging and surviving a wreck that takes forever to quiet, is an escape of sorts not meant for civilian eyes. Then the army rolls into town, which is never a good thing in movies like Super 8.
The movie then teases the audience with: How deep and unpleasant is the mystery of what they may or may not have stumbled into and how far are those protecting it willing to go to cover it up? And as the dots are being connected, and as the core-story reveals itself, it becomes agonizingly evident that the lines being drawn are taking on the shape of a formless, cumbersome, derivative mass with no sense of unity. That Super 8 is a film of glorious implausibility and unoriginality.
Super 8 really has the features of two distinct movies and neither successful because neither is properly committed to. The first would have been my preference. A dark, pulpy, offbeat chiller wherein a group of kids are thrown into a dangerous situation and are pitted against an evil otherworldly menace who can only be defeated by their unique bond, cunning, and eclectic expertise. The second would be a lighter affair, for a PG crowd, where the kids are in over their heads after discovering a military secret, but with the help of a “new, misunderstood friend” they foil the devious military plot and everyone feels warm and fuzzy in the end, maybe shedding a tear. Abrams, who I always pegged as the most creative guy in the room, seems to have shamelessly borrowed elements from both these already well-tread and rather uninspiring movie standards. The result is a jarringly uneven hybrid that holds back when it should be pushing, simplifies when it should be made increasingly complex, and relents when it should challenge. It is a movie too vicious and violent for pre-teen audiences and too sappy and ridiculous for older teenagers and adults. That leaves a very small window for audience satisfaction.
This irregularity in tone is further complicated by shockingly amateurish pacing. It is as though Super 8 remembers with a half hour left that it needs to hurry up and roll the credits because an impatient custodian waits outside the theatre to mop up. Everything Super 8 built toward by reveling in terror and conflict over the majority of the film is forgone in its final lap leaving the audience stunned, feeling empty, and, yes, perhaps even betrayed.