When the closing credits began to roll on this film, my main thought was “Why go to all this trouble not to say anything?”. The short film that actually appears in the credits is in some ways more interesting than what precedes it. J.J. Abrams appears to have made a Spielberg tribute film. It’s well-made and engaging most of the time with good performances by the young actors at the core of the narrative – but it doesn’t add up to anything. On reflection the final third of the film is a bit of a mess as the plot doesn’t make much sense and I didn’t really understand why some things were happening. But by then I didn’t really care.
The story rehashes bits of Close Encounters and ET with elements of Alien and Poltergeist, Minority Report and probably several other Spielberg-related films. Set in the Summer of 1979 (three Mile Island is mentioned on a news report) it places a group of young teens making a zombie picture (referencing George Romero’s early Living Dead films) who witness a train crash close to an isolated town. But this is more than just a crash and soon the US Air Force are in town cleaning up the mess and starting to behave suspiciously. You can pretty much invent the rest of the plot from there. The boy and girl at the centre have both lost their mothers and have to live with inadequate fathers. The boys ride round on chopper bikes as in ET etc. I stress that it is well done and Abrams seems to have gone as far as selecting the most appropriate filmstock and colour grading to mimic the 1970s/80s films set in small towns. Unfortunately he is as sentimental as Spielberg so it doesn’t get beyond a film for 12 year-olds and those who wish they were 12 again – nothing wrong with that and I hope they enjoy it. It’s also much longer than it needs to be. Pruning the action sequences would make a tighter leaner film.
Of course, there is no reason why a genre film shouldn’t aim for being simply entertaining but it does need a twist or a new element to create ‘difference’ with the ‘repetition’. I couldn’t find the difference here and after all the hype (and the big budget spend) I was hoping for something more. While I was watching Super 8 it occurred to me that there was another film set around this period with a pair of protagonists of about this age. Let the Right One In has quite a few strengths that J.J. Abrams could learn from. I also thought about Monsters with its beautiful gas station scene on a budget of peanuts. Abrams also has a gas station scene that works pretty well but I’m guessing he spent a lot more. The Korean movie The Host borrows some of the same tropes as Super 8 but also offers a critique of the family and of Korean domestic politics and foreign policy. Super 8 is being touted as the ‘intelligent’ blockbuster of the year which doesn’t bode well for Hollywood.