I’ve developed something of a like/hate relationship with JJ Abrams‘ work in the past few years. I have not quite reached the point of acquiring any feelings of adoration for anything the man has done though I can acknowledge that his heart is most certainly in the right place. However, with his latest opus – SUPER 8 – this “heart” may be his weakest link.
SUPER 8 has been something of a big deal for Abrams, and it has been a long time coming. In interviews, Abrams has acknowledged how much his adolescent years spent behind his Super 8 camera helped to push him to where he is today. There is a very obvious reason for this film feeling as nostalgic as it is, and it is not because of the copious ’80s coming-of-age/sci-fi film references. No, this is a love letter to a certain era of film-making, that era being that of the Super 8 camera wielding amateur filmmaker. Make no mistake, this is the sci-fi pseudo-blockbuster it is being advertised yet at the same time it is much more (as well as less) than that very thing.
As much as I would like to reveal the plot at large here, doing so would relinquish the very mystery that the film has been shrouded in from the initial stages of its viral marketing campaign. All you need to know going in is what you can tell from the various trailers that have been circulating for months now: a group of children, working on a Super 8 zombie film, witness a freak railroad accident that may (or may not) be connected to a secret government, extraterrestrial related, operation. Chances are, outside of the “Super 8” aspect, you have heard of this all before. When I said that this film functions as a love letter to this era of filmmaking, I also mean to say that this is when the film is at its best (and most original). In a summer that is plagued with various comic-book adaptations and insanely over-budget sequels, for a film crammed with trite sci-fi tropes to come off as “original” is a hard thing to stomach. However, Abrams manages to embrace this aspect of his film (he wrote it as well as directing) and one almost wishes he would drop the generic sci-fi film trappings and deliver the audience just a film about a group of children going through the trials and tribulations of creating an amateur zombie film.
When SUPER 8 is in full-on sci-fi gear, it has a tendency to work more than it does not and, thus, it is hard to fault Abrams for such actions. The problem that remains is that the vast majority of this aspect of the film is blatantly un-original. There are legitimate moments that feel lifted straight from other films, video-games and/or literature. After the screening ended I was inclined to label Abrams as the sci-fi equivalent of Tarantino, yet that would unfairly imply that he did not induce anything original into his film at all (ouch, sorry, Quentin).
Up until now, I have made no mention of the film’s executive producer who, if you’ve seen any advertisements for the film at all, shares about as much credit for the film as Abrams: Steven Spielberg. Naturally, this film is garnering many comparisons to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as well as E.T., while I feel that those comparisons – in regards to evoking an era and/or tone of filmmaking – are justified, I think that they imply that the film is something it is not. Spielberg’s films tended to deal with a family dynamic far more so than Abrams film does, which handles the children and parents more so autonomously, though they do appear on screen together at times. Their stories feel separate and are told as such. Aesthetically, SUPER 8 has a lot more in common with the disaster-movie image laden Spielberg helmed WAR OF THE WORLDS than any of his 1980s sci-fi features. Though some cringe-inducingly emotional sequences in the film would imply otherwise, SUPER 8 is a lot more “hardcore” than either ENCOUNTERS or E.T.. Spielberg’s films seemed (and probably were) aimed at children and/or families where as Abrams film is very apparently targeted at a more discerning sci-fi fanbase that more than likely embraced his STAR TREK reboot and CLOVERFIELD (which he served as a producer on and was touted as such in the advertising).
SUPER 8 is another film in the line of Abrams films – after MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE III and STAR TREK – in which his directorial style dictates, rather than enhances, what is happening on screen. JJ likes to keep his camera moving, which I can’t always fault him for as his camera work tends to be rather fluid, but at times a stationary shot would be nice and offer a bit of relief for the exasperated viewer. Also, as the title of this review rather boldly mentions, Abrams needs to cut the proverbial shit with the lens flares. Enough is enough. I do not like to chastise a filmmaker for a unique style but Abrams completely over-uses this effect here. There are moments where it is legitimately hard to tell what is happening on screen (or at least pay attention) due to the amount of lens flares present on screen. It has come to the point of feeling like a gimmick rather than an effect and is obtrusive rather than being aesthetically appealing. Lens flares aside, Abrams does wonders with a cast of mostly unknowns, including a group of children that he evokes rather wonderful performances from. The scenes of amateur filmmaking (as well as the amateur film footage itself) were integral to the development of both these characters and the narrative at large and these kids really pull that off. In the end, if SUPER 8 is remembered for anything decades from now, it will be the performances of these children (who in their own right could be A-list actors by then) and an abundance of lens flares, which will hopefully be looked at as an unfortunate camera mis-hap.
Well, over 1,000 words later and I think I’ve said what I have to say about SUPER 8. The film works exceptionally well as a film about amateur filmmaking, it rides the coatails of other sci-fi films to give that story purpose (rather unncessarily, in my opinion) and it features some rather incredible child performances. It is far from being a perfect film and may not even by the surge of nostalgia that many sci-fi/80s film fans were hoping for, but in a summer that is populated week after week with seemingly un-original fare, it is hard to completely fault a film that at least attempts to do something new. Whether or not it succeeds is up to you to find out. And when you do, make sure to stay through the ending credits. If anything will make you feel like a kid again it is the few minutes those run for. And, no, they do not contain lens flares.