I want to like Super 8 so much more than I do. It has its heart in the right place. As an homage to 1980s family-friendly science fiction films, it's very good. As a film that stands on its own merits, it's very shaky.
Middle school student Joe Lamb and his friends are making a zombie film. They convince an older girl, Alice Dainard (a phenomenal Elle Fanning), to drive them to the train station and take on a role in the film. While shooting an emotional scene, a real train starts to come by. The group of young friends witness and film a massive accident involving a military train. Moments later, military vehicles begin to swarm their town, dogs and people disappear, and power sources are stolen around the clock. The military wants to find the witnesses to the trainwreck at any cost.
The problem with Super 8 is that it delivers great sci-fi and cliched, stagnant childhood melodrama. The action sequences--such as the train derailment--are stunning. They're executed to perfection and build a great sense of suspense. It's strong visual storytelling. The story of these characters in this town, however, is not a stable enough platform to support all the excitement. Super 8 plays like a soap opera was chopped down to 90 minutes and padded with 20 minutes of sci-fi/action sequences.
Take, for instance, a fight scene between two of the friends later in the film. They spend a minute circling around "you know why I'm mad at you/No I don't/You can't be that stupid/Just tell me/You know why I'm mad at you" before every cliche about young romance is tossed at the screen. The issue brought up at that point has no impact on the story. It feels like director/writer J.J. Abrams felt bad that one character didn't have enough screen time, so he just threw this in to balance it out. A whole lot of Super 8 feels like Abrams couldn't restrain himself. It's honestly a matter of editing the picture to create a stronger through-line rather than meander through side-plot after side-plot that doesn't live up to the excitement of the real sci-fi going on.
Super 8's makeup and effects are spot on. Everything that happens in this film looks authentic. There is one scene with a massive head wound that actually repulsed me. I think it had something to do with the flies landing in the blood that looked too real to seem like CGI while watching the film. For a film with so much technical wizardy happening onscreen at the same time, the effects never feel gratuitous. This is the magic of Super 8.
The way I see it, the film would have avoided a whole lot of problems if it just stuck with the perspective of the children. Part of the disjointed narrative stems from jumping between Joe's involvement in the zombie film/train accident, his father's involvement in the police investigation surrounding the disappearances and accident, and the later cuts to the perspective of a major military official trying to cover up the accident at any costs. The bandages used to tie these characters together--hokey dialog and random displays of over the top emotion--actually work to tear the film apart.
Super 8 does have a sense of joy and life that makes me want to forgive the disjointed screenplay. There is an audience for this film. I could see 80s nostalgia fans loving it and soft sci-fi fans (versus hard, technically accurate sci-fi fans) getting their fix from it. Otherwise, it comes down to your tolerance for melodrama. It has all the crossover appeal of big summer blockbuster film if you can get past the random interactions.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.