Super 8 is not a very good movie, but most people won’t care. Most people won’t even notice. They’ll be so drunk on nostalgia, on Spielberg’s name, on the Amblin logo flashing across the screen, on the fat kid that looks like he’s straight out of Goonies that they’ll hardly even notice that Super 8 is kind of a shitty movie. It’s like getting drunk and going to a Scores strip club in Branson, Missouri: Sure, one lady is missing a leg, another a few teeth, and there’s some rust on the pole, but hey! It says Scores on the marquee, I must be having a great time. Oh, and look: There’s a tattoo of E.T. on that woman’s inner thigh, right below her tampon string. How Spielbergian!
One of the most frustrating peeves I have with the “turn off your brain” crowd is that it’s exactly what the studios and filmmakers want. They may as well mark the admission tickets with reminders. “Don’t forget to sit back, relax, and turn off your brain!” But if you do, you’re giving in. If you turn off your brain, they don’t have to work. They don’t have to make a coherent story or believable characters; they can tell you what to expect and how to feel with the marketing, and you can just slide into their pre-manufactured expectations for you. You’ll walk out of J.J. Abrams Super 8 saying, “I’m full of childlike wonder. That movie was mint,” because that’s exactly what they want you to say. They planted that in your brain before you turned it off, and now all you’re left with is residual memories of ad taglines.
J.J. Abrams even managed to snooker the majority of critics (the movie currently boasts a whopping 82 percent on the Tomatometer), most of whom grew up on Spielberg and Amblin movies (me too! me too!). Gremlins and E.T. and *batteries not included, it’s all critic Kryptonite. Even the most discriminating viewers get so lost in their rightful nostalgic affection for old films, in the hold that Spielberg’s trance has over them, that they spend the film reliving their own youth instead of paying attention to what’s happening on screen. What’s happening up there is kind of a mess.
In Super 8, J.J. Abrams essentially takes E.T. The Extra Terrestrial , Goonies, a little bit of Iron Giant and a lot of Cloverfield and sticks it in a blender and pours some 90-proof nostalgia juice in it. Set in 1979, Super 8 takes the main cast of Goonies, adds a 15-year-old version of Drew Barrymore’s character in E.T. (Elle Fanning) and, just to pound that movie-maker note, assembles them to make a kid film. The fat kid from Goonies (here played by Riley Griffiths) is the bossy teenage director of their little home movie; a slightly older version of the kid from Iron Giant / younger version of Dawson Leary (here played by Joel Courtney) handles the make-up effects. He’s also the lead, and as a nod to Spielberg, his Mom has recently died, leaving him with an emotional detached single father (Kyle Chandler), who is also the small town’s deputy.
While the kids are out filming at a train station one night, a pick-up truck driven by the high school science teacher from Gremlins (Glynn Turman, essentially reprising that role) purposefully crashes into the train, which provides the film’s only real action sequence until the final minutes. The kids from Goonies skeedaddle, but not before their rolling camera catches a glimpse of the creature in the train.
After that, the military guys from E.T. roll into town and block off the crash site. Suddenly, people and dogs in town begin disappearing, and Deputy Lamb is put in charge of figuring out what’s going on. The answer is basically small-town Cloverfield, only the alien in Super 8 is even more mysterious in nature (mysterious here being a narrative shortcut for: We couldn’t think of a cool story to explain the creature’s origins or motivations, so we’re just not going to bother). Then, it all dovetails into a climatic finale that’s almost as loud as it is moronic. But you probably won’t notice because you’ll be too busy admiring how similar some of Abrams’ shots are to Spielberg’s.
I’ll give Super 8 this much, though. It worked a number on me for about an hour before I was able to pull out of the trance. Elle Fanning, as the troubled daughter of the town fuckup (Ron Eldard) is goddamn magical, and Joel Courtney does a serviceable job of playing the dewy-eyed Eliot from E.T. I’m emotionally incapable of either thinking or writing anything negative about Kyle Chandler, but he’s fine, if underused. Unfortunately, those performances are beside the point. By the end, Abrams pulls away from the smaller, intimate story and hijacks it with a larger military and alien presence that doesn’t jibe with the rest of the movie. Nor does it make much sense. But again, you’ll probably never notice; you’ll be too busy trying to fit the finale into Spielberg’s universe.
Look: All the credit in the world to Spielberg the brand of family-film magic he weaved in the 80s. That shit was like crack for your imagination, for your sense of wonder, for your fucking soul. But you can’t replicate that. I appreciate that J.J. Abrams attempted here to make a movie that was neither a sequel nor an official remake. But what Abams tries to do with Super 8 is even more difficult than bringing a new spin to an old story; he tries to give an old spin to a new story populated with remade Spielberg characters. It may as well have been a remake. The effect is remarkably similar. And as an unofficial remake of an Amblin film, Abrams hits a lot of the right notes, but he misses all the beats. The result is a finished film that’s not very good, but don’t worry. If you did what they want you to do, your brain was likely flipped to the off switch. You won’t even notice.