Super 8 ✮✮
Close Encounters of the Turgid Kind
by Glenn Lovell
Despite the media hype — or probably because of it — the new J.J. Abrams opus “Super 8” is a letdown, a jarringly messy blend of blue-collar angst and feel-good Spielberg. (Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment co-produced.)
Think George A. Romero’s conspiracy chiller “The Crazies” crossed with “The Goonies,” and you’re in the cluttered ballpark.
Add to this an angry, waylaid extraterrestrial whose presence is announced by flickering lights, panicked canines and kitchen appliances flying through the air. You’re right, it’s as lame as it sounds. When we do glimpse the thing from another world, it’s too little too late, another crustacean whatchamacallit — half Alien, half skittering arachnid from “Starship Troopers.”
This is a popcorn attraction that’s so keen to trumpet its own merits that we’re given not one but two father-child bonding scenarios, as well as characters repeatedly marveling at the over-the-top action and f/x. Military weapons mysteriously misfiring, causing cascading fireballs? “They’re huge!” shouts one kid above the din. A soldier torn limb from limb by the rampaging what’s-it? “Another one dead!” a kid tells a friend who, like us, has just witnessed the encounter.
“Super 8” is spoon-fed sci-fi. It subsists on such “Well, duh” revelations.
Abrams, of course, is the creative brains behind TV’s “Lost” and “Felicity.” That’s why we approached this project, which Abrams wrote and directed, with great expectations. From the previews it looked like we’d be getting a character-driver sci-fi’er along the lines of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” Maybe that’s the problem: It feels too early to be thinking Spielberg homage. After all, Spielberg’s genre outings were themselves 20-years-later homages to “It Came from Outer Space,” among other 1950s B classics.
Even the title seems a suck-up to Steven, who has talked about making Super 8 productions as a boy growing up in Phoenix. His maiden effort was called “The Last Train Wreck.” Guess what gets things rolling in Abrams’ film? Yup, a massively overproduced train wreck, with cars slamming into one another before being launched skyward in a shower of twisted steel.
The year is 1979. Walter Cronkite is on TV warning about a potential meltdown at Three Mile Island. The town — Lillian, Ohio — couldn’t be any more Midwestern if it were smack dab in the middle of the continental U.S. Standing in for the young Spielberg is a 12-year-old named Joey (Joel Courtney, whose elfin looks will put you in mind of Elijah Wood as Frodo). Joey lives with his father (Kyle Chandler), the town’s deputy sheriff. They’re sans mom because, we learn in a dreary, drawn-out set-up, she has just died in a workplace mishap. This makes Dad bitter and non-communicative, Joey a confused and needy latchkey kid. Elliott in “E.T.” had a picture-perfect home life by comparison.
Joey’s hobby is making zombie movies with his misfit classmates. This summer they’re rushing to complete a production called “The Case.” Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the chubby director ever on the lookout for “production value”; Martin (Gabriel Basso) is the crybaby leading man; Cary (Ryan Lee) is the pyromaniac in braces; Alice (Elle Fanning) is the first reluctant, then game, leading lady. Joey goes all wobbly kneed in her presence.
It’s while shooting at the local depot that they witness the aforementioned derailment. Hushed up as an accident, it’s anything but. Lillian Middle School’s science teacher (Glynn Turman) drove head-on into the engine. Amazingly, he survives long enough to warn, “They will kill you. Do not speak of this or you and your parents will die.”
The train was transporting a secret Air Force experiment, which is now on the loose and responsible for all manner of havoc, including the abduction of the sheriff and a woman in large curlers. Your stereotypical military types, led by a nasty, pockmarked officer (Noah Emmerich), are determined to corral the thing, even if it means leveling Lillian in the bargain.
Will the kids finish their magnum opus? Will Joey and Alice reconnect with their respective dads? Will the what’s-it from another galaxy give the Air Force the slip?
“Super 8” is at its most engaging when the nascent filmmakers are planning their next location shoot, arguing about who’s going to swipe the family car and who forgot to loan the camera last time. It’s fun and frantic, like going behind the scenes of this movie in miniature. There’s also a lovely heart-in-the-throat moment at the end, telling us Joey has finally learned to let go.
But that’s not much of a return on our investment.
Overall, “Super 8” is less a tribute to classic sci-fi than a mechanical, by-the-book exercise in How to Build a Tribute to Classic Sci-Fi.
SUPER 8 ✮✮ With Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard. Directed, written by J.J. Abrams. 112 min. PG-13 (for alien violence, nonstop pyrotechnics)