Seeing a mob of confused people with failing electronic devices and flickering electricity in J. J. Abram’s newest virally-marketed flick, Super 8, I couldn’t help but be reminded of an episode of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone with an episode called The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. In the classic episode, panicked townsfolk turn to the knowledge of a child who has read too many fantasy stories to guide them through the panic of an alien invasion. Ultimately the twist makes a statement and isn’t something you saw coming, which was always the case with the classic series. Sadly, with Super 8 and its equally mysteriously marketed predecessor Cloverfield from 2008; there is no twist, and the “surprise” of the films is exactly your first thought from the trailers.
The film opens with the protagonist, a young boy named Joe losing his mother and then flashes forward a few months to a group of enthusiastic young film makers attempting to film a zombie movie with a Super 8 camera. For “production value” they film a train as it’s passing by and it happens to explode multiple times. Before you know it the military is involved and it’s up to Joe’s father, the local sheriff, as played by Kyle Chandler (who seemingly holds the position of every other elected official in the town and conducts one-man press conferences) to save the world. Of course since the loss of his wife there has been some distance between him and his son and this alien disaster is just the kind of therapy their father-son relationship needed to bring them together in a one-dimensional and forced emotional arc.
It’s not the only shallow and uninteresting relationship in the movie though. Joe also quickly falls in love with a girl named Alice (Elle Fanning) applying monster make up on the film shoot and is willing to risk his life in the subsequent days to find her when she goes the way of the local dogs and appliances-missing. Scenes of Joe showing Alice footage of his mother and their bizarre under-age bonding experiences are where the film really tends to drag, though the action scenes are equally underwhelming and should serve to prove that the more explosions, thrashing tentacles and spastic unintelligible motion sequences you have in a movie doesn’t add to its stark and tasteful ambiguity, it only leaves the viewer slightly bored.
While it’s true, the use of child protagonists harkens back to older Speilberg films, you have to wonder how they became like a kid version of the A-team. One is a master of pyrotechnics, another a make up artist, one a brilliant actress and the other with an eye for storytelling. This premise unto itself, might have actually been more interesting than the wanton destruction and government conspiracies. Instead I’m left wondering why the film was marketed as if it were framed through a Super 8 camera and the logo of the film focused so much on that, as that plot line quickly devolves after the first 20 minutes until it’s no longer existent or relevant by the end of the film. While protagonists like Elliot in E.T. were able to stand alone in the 80’s and create a dramatic arc without forced drama, it was somehow necessary for Joe to be grieving the loss of his mother and making a film and falling in love prematurely to create a fully dynamic backdrop for alien invasion. And that aspect is nothing we haven’t seen before.
Super 8 borrows techniques and plot devices from tons of other films; from the accidental death of the mother as the result of the carelessness of a side character ala Signs to the government involvement of District 9, Super 8 felt like a movie that I’d seen before which added nothing new to the table. Some critics have said that if it was made in the 80’s it may have been a classic. I think it’s a little unfair to say that, because just about every movie that comes out now with advanced visual effects would have been as well. It feels slightly lazy to fall back on the draw of the film being a period piece with nods to older bodies of work to attempt to validate it. The movie magic surrounding Star Wars, E.T., Close Encounter of the Third Kind, and more is because those films really did something special that added to the ever changing medium of film and brought a new spectacle to the table. As much as I love homage’s to older movies and film connections, Super 8 just feels cut-and-dry and lifeless with no true emotional drive at the core and no genuine need to see how it ends, because you’ve seen it so many times before and you’re certain that all the characters will be fine. For a director that boasts such bold new visions, I can’t help but feel like this film is remarkably predictable and safe.
Toward the beginning of the film before disaster/invasion movie tropes became rampant and monotonous, the screenwriter of the group of kids is explaining how he read books on screenwriting and how you need to write in a love interest. When asked why he can’t supply a real reason other than “That’s how it works.” Thus Elle Fanning’s character is introduced into the zombie film. Ironically she exists in Super 8 for the same reason. For a movie apparently so aware of clichés it never made one attempt to avoid them or deviate from that little how-to guide to screen writing.