Super 8 had a high pedigree to live up to – with two of the most gifted filmmakers active today at the helm (Steven Spielberg, producing, and J.J. Abrams, directing), and with a genre so familiar to both (it almost certainly deliberately invokes comparison to Cloverfield and Spielberg’s early films such as Close Encounters and especially E.T.), there was much reason to be excited. Watching the film, that excitement is very well justified until an abrupt shift in the third act sends the movie flying off the rails – and that pun is very much intended.
Where Super 8 succeeds is in the first two acts – the film juggles mystery, emotion and fun as it spins an incredibly engaging yarn in the vein of The Goonies, with a group of misfits caught up in events bigger than them. It’s an interesting twist that, while in the days of The Goonies, it was enough to have the kids motivated by the promise of adventure and pirate treasure alone, but that in 2011 the kids need to finish their movie and save the entire town. It’s telling of the way Hollywood has scaled up their movies to an extravagant extent – but more on that later. The first hour and fifteen minutes or so are filled with spectacular storytelling – it moves along at a brisk pace with quick cuts and few lingering melodramatic excesses; it has a sufficient emotional plot regarding the death of the main character’s mother and the tension between two families that it causes, a plot that grounds the movie and makes the characters all the more interesting; it is filled with a great sense of humor and a truly endearing set of kids; and, most importantly, it reminds me so much of my amateur filmmaking, be it 48 hour rushes with friends in which we try to find ways to increase our production value, or longer periods of production where we pull in everything we can to make it great.
The third act, however, is where the movie falls to pieces. After gradually revealing bits of the monster throughout the film – in incredibly clever ways through the framing of the shots, one of the year’s best displays of cinematography – Abrams thrusts it into the spotlight, and immediately emotional plots are dropped, the meta film elements vanish, and the mystery morphs into action. Suddenly the monster has a purpose, suddenly the monster is humanized, suddenly the Air Force (why exactly the Air Force again?) is blowing up the town, suddenly the kids are captured – and in this, Abrams’ eye for pacing works against him. The film moves from setpiece to setpiece with little time for exposition or emotional development, so that by the last five minutes of the film very little has happened since the 1:15 mark. The film then hastily wraps up its emotional plot in a wholly unsatisfying way, to the point where I did not care at all for Joe’s reunion with his father and cared only a little bit more for Alice’s reunion with her father.
Let’s not focus on the negatives, however, as the film was effortlessly watchable and enjoyable (even in spite of its misfiring third act) – and this is almost entirely due to the efforts of the cast of kids in the film. These are very talented young actors, especially Elle Fanning, who played love interest Alice, Joel Courtney as main character Joe, and Riley Griffiths as the filmmaker Charles. Fanning is the standout both in-film and out, as her character showed off considerable acting chops in a dry run of a scene for Charles’ movie, and provided some of the more rewarding emotion within the film – her relationship with her father (which reeks of “I rebel because I have daddy issues so I’ll do your movie”, but she makes it work) was far more compelling than Joe’s relationship with his own. This is not to discredit Courtney and Kyle Chandler (Joe’s father), however, as their relationship was deliberately strained due to the father’s dedication to the mystery surrounding strange events in the town. Both conflicts worked, but only Fanning’s reunion was anything close to moving.
Super 8 is not a bad film, but it is held back from classic status due to its devolution into a routine action film. Nevertheless the first hour and fifteen minutes are some of the best minutes you’ll spend at the theater this year, and the film as a whole is a wonderfully entertaining thrill ride that earns its place among The Goonies and Stand By Me as kid-ensemble adventure films.
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