The previews for Super 8 make it crystal clear that Steven Spielberg was involved with the film and suggest he played a pretty big role in every part of its development. The end product, quite heavily, feels as if director J.J. Abrams set out to create an homage to Spielberg with this major release. Many films are produced by superstars of Hollywood but they often have rather limited direct impact on the film itself. This film gives Spielberg virtually identical billing to the director with the exception of being listed second on the poster. The intended impression is easily picked up by virtually everyone that encounters it.
I mention this because the general feel of the film overruns with the flavor of several of Spielberg’s earlier films, most notably The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., among others. Unfortunately it doesn’t have the same lasting impact of any of them.
Super 8 will likely appeal to a wide audience as it’s very much a kid’s movie with major adult appeal with respect to a more grown-up story line and top-notch effects. Speaking of effects, the one major effect of the film (shown quite often in trailers) involves a train wreck. The wreck is so spectacular on screen that it goes down as one of the most impressively realistic efforts of recent memory.
The previews clearly went to great lengths to hide the underlying story and, sadly, suggested a plot line that I believe would have been a better actual story than the one we end up getting. Early previews hinted at some sort of supernatural camera that causes issues for the kids involved. Instead it feels as if the Brothers Grimm had originally written E.T. with all their dark gory details on full display.
The kids do a decent job handling the material but none of them stand out above it. That isn’t to say there aren’t memorable moments; There are but it’s more to do with the script itself than the performances.
The early parts of the film roll along at a brisk pace and then the movie really starts to slow to a meandering crawl. By the end of the experience it felt like several long hours had elapsed. However, one of the biggest flaws of the film is in a closing sequence that comes far too fast and almost entirely lacking in detail.
Most of the film feels like a cheap, quickly applied thin veneer. We don’t really get much character development from anyone even where you’re sure some will come. It never does and the biggest omission is the most costly one with respect to the other-worldly element of the movie. Imagine E.T. without getting to know a damned thing about E.T. himself and you start to get the idea.
Unfortunately another hold-over in the homage area is in the surrounding cast and plots lines. In many earlier Spielberg films much of the cursory characters felt entirely as if they were thrown in to meet some sort of film school check list and often acted as out-of-place as that sounds. It’s the same here especially with regard to the military personnel we’re exposed to. None of them feel at all real and we’re glad when the film moves beyond them. It also extends to more central characters like the parents so it’s pretty hard to overlook.
One other minor annoyance is that the script seems to treat the era of the film with as little regard as it does the characters. We’re never told when this takes place but the hints suggest roughly 1980 yet we get references to elements ranging from 1977 and going on for nearly a decade after. We’re introduced to a brand-new Sony Walkman with clear references of it being novel. That places us in 1978-79. A famous Mattel hand-held football game is shown which makes in 1977 but then some of the music that plays didn’t debut for many years after that. I suspect most people won’t care or even notice this but it bugged me.
Much hype was attached to this effort and it’s certainly won top billing for its first week in release but ultimately it’s a forgettable film that might be interesting on cable on a rainy Saturday but wasn’t worth the price of admission or the time invested—especially when that time seemed to go on endlessly.