BRING BACK THE ’70s! Elle Fanning’s Streep-worthy emoting in the Super-8 title film within this film is one redeeming element of director J.J. Abrams’s Spielberg homage.|
Arriving on a wave of secrecy that the projects of J.J. Abrams have become known for, Super 8 turns out to contain hardly any secrets at all.
It's exactly the kind of homage to the early output of producer/director Steven Spielberg that was promised by the well-cut teaser that ran during last February's Super Bowl, from the first frames to the last — from Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment logo appearing at the start (he's the film's producer), to the final crescendo of composer Michael Giacchino's bombastic, John Williams–like score.
After two feature outings as a director (Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek), Abrams has yet to develop a clear style of his own, so trying to emulate someone else's is as successful as something a group of kids with a camera might make, inspired by movies they adore: a fitfully entertaining, loving tribute, but little more.
Which suits Abrams' nostalgic tale of pubescent proto-filmmakers mounting a mini-epic of zombie mayhem during summer vacation of 1979. If only Abrams had been content to explore the simple pleasures of this coming-of-age tale, but no, he had to go and combine it with another of his story ideas under development — that of an alien on-the-loose, unleashed from a cargo container headed from Area 51 during a disastrous train derailment.
While this latter idea remains woefully underdeveloped, cobbled from elements of Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, not to mention the unfortunate decision to keep the creature hidden until late in the picture, à la Jaws, at least Abrams shares Spielberg's talent for casting children — if not quite his gift for directing them.
Newcomers Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths — playing Joe, the film's young hero and his camera-wielding best pal Charles, respectively — handle their roles with gusto, but it's Elle Fanning (Dakota's more naturalistic sis), a veteran at 13, who shines. As Alice, daughter of the town drunk (Ron Eldard), she finds herself cast in Charles's super-8 film-within-a-film as the long-suffering wife of a zombie-hunting police detective (a delightfully wooden Gabriel Basso). Her Streep-worthy emoting stirs Charles's inner Ed Wood — and Joe's tender heart.
I wish I could say the movie feels like it was filmed in the late '70s. Alas, I saw the 2-D film poorly projected through polarized 3-D lenses, robbing it of color and luminosity. Even so, most of the details — regarding both the era and the Amblin emulation — feel slightly off. Why are these kids making a splatter movie featuring the undead? Sure, the first couple of Romero's Dead films had already been released, but given their X-ratings, where would the lads have seen them? Wouldn't Star Wars have been the real touchstone, as it was for millions of movie-crazy youth of the day?
And what of Alice and Joe's single dads (Eldard and Kyle Chandler)? Students of Spielberg or even George Lucas know it's the father who's always absent, not to mention uncommented on — unlike the complicated backstory here.
Likewise, when a character says, "I don't feel good about this," fans of Star Wars and Indiana Jones will immediately hear an off-key echo of those films' signature line: "I've got a bad feeling about this." Those fans will have a bad feeling about that, too.
DIRECTED and written BY J.J. ABRAMS | WITH Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, and Zach Mills