Super 8 poses as an homage to the Spielberg films of the 70s and 80s. It’s based in a small town, focuses on a group of precocious children and the military are bogeymen not to be trusted. But in the end, the film goes its own way.
There was always a clarity about those early Spielberg films. We knew who the heroes and villains were. But Super 8 is a little bit muddier. And not in a complex, thought-provoking way. Sometimes it’s just needlessly violent and cruel.
The main problem is the alien life form at the center of the film. Tortured and abused by the military, it turns homicidal in its attempt to return home. Very rarely do we actually see any bloodletting but innocent people get thrown around like rag dolls and at one point someone gets eaten. Despite this, we’re still meant to sympathise with this being.
Yes it must be horrible to be incarcerated and to be tortured and to be prevented from returning home, like so much Guantanamo Bay, but that doesn’t mean you should go around collecting people to eat. This shows that you’re an intergalatic dick.
Because of this, the ending to the film falls completely flat. Our hero, Joe, is about to be munched on by this massive alien but the child establishes a telepathic connection with the creature and talks it out of killing him or harming any other people. The boy says that you can still live on after painful events. Wise words, but horribly executed by J.J. Abrams. The alien in this film is seen so seldom and has so little personality or complexity that I didn’t give a damn about his fate. Seriously, after having it lurk in the shadows for the entire running time and have it behave like a psychopath, you’re going to try and invest it with some feeling in the last few minutes? Too little, too late.
It doesn’t help that the creature looks like warmed up leftovers from Cloverfield. How am I meant to feel for a gigantic space spider? Oh, I know how. Right at the last second Abrams’ will suddenly give the creature big, round human-like eyes. Sorry J.J., your creature is still a poorly conceived, barely-adequately-rendered jerk.
With the alien being such a bust, it’s a shame that the rest of Super 8 is pretty good. The relationships between the child characters have a lot of warmth and colour, and the movie is impressively shot.
Super 8 deliberately steals a lot of its visuals from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The lens flares, the colours and the compositions are very reminiscent of Spielberg’s film.
Some of the action is also lifted from Spielberg. The scene where an electrician gets snatched by the alien feels like something out of Jurassic Park. But even though it feels like an homage, it’s still well executed.
A much more fanciful sequence is the train crash near the beginning of the film. The accident seems to last for several minutes and the CGI isn’t always convincing. Plus there’s some supreme silliness at the end when a man in a truck - a man who drove headfirst into the massive train - survives the crash. Only the back of the truck is destroyed and the man is still well enough to wave a gun around. In a film that has a massive spider alien, this is the element that stretches credibility the furthest.
The only reason that the film recovers from this nonsense is that it has genuine affection for its human characters. The kids have great chemistry and there’s that feeling of innocence and playfulness that you got from those old Spielberg movies. It seems like something special might happen. But then the alien story kicks in and everything unravels. It seemed to me that Abrams didn’t know how to tie everything together. He has the skill to create a wonderful looking film and he has the skill to create likeable characters, but he can’t knit it into one piece.
Later in the film, the violence seems incredibly brutal for what is essentially a family film. Our young heroes get to witness an alien violently ripping military men to shreds. Is the fact that the military men are murderers enough to justify the verocity of the scene? Supposedly it is, but if this were real life, I’m sure these kids would be scarred for decades.
But it’s just strange that such violence co-exists in a film which is essentially about children slowly shedding their innocence. One could argue that the violence is real life creeping in and turning these young people into adults, but some of it is pretty extreme for a PG-13.
I also hated the way that the lead character lets go of his necklace at the end. The necklace contains a locket with a picture of himself as a baby with his dead mother (she dies in an industrial accident when the film begins). It’s meant to symbolise the boy letting go of the past but it didn’t work for me. We shouldn’t let the past rule our lives but at the same time we should honour the memory of those we love. The boy letting the bracelet go made it seem like he’d gotten over his mother’s death too easily. It almost felt uncaring. This is certainly not how the scene was intended, but there was no arc to the boy’s grief. He was sad and then he got over it - there was no progression. If it were me in the same situation, the picture would have to be ripped from my hands, even if I’d had it for decades.
And this is why the movie failed. It didn’t earn the sentiment. Spielberg earned it, but Abrams most certainly didn’t.