The score is cheesy, the plot progresses through clunky exposition, and the characters are simplistic, but good luck trying not to tear up at the last scene. Director/writer JJ Abrams and producer/mentor Steven Spielberg’s Super 8 lacks the sophistication of the post-millennial sci-fi genre, but more than makes up for it with the wicked combination of unreal special effects and expertly delivered sentimentality.
Super 8 chronicles the adventures of a group of kids in the 1979 who, in the course of filming an amateur horror movie, bear witness to a mysterious train crash and become entangled in a top secret military operation. The movie works thanks to the stellar performances of its lead trio: Joel Courtney as the fearless protagonist coming to terms with the death of his mother, Elle Fanning in a career-making follow up to Somewhere as love interest and ingénue, and Kyle Chandler as the very Coach Taylor-esque father figure. The connection between their three characters is the heart of the movie; the awesome alien is just gravy.
In the press, Super 8 has largely been defined by its similarities to other movies, so let’s get that out of the way: undoubtedly, Abrams borrows from E.T., The Goonies, and others. It’s been called everything from a copy to an homage, but really is just an inevitability when trying to create something original in a tried and true genre. In the age of franchises and sequels, is it really worth getting upset about thematic similarities with classic movies from the ‘80s?
The more on-point criticism, however, is that Abrams seems to borrow too heavily on himself. To those familiar with the Abrams canon, Super 8 treads not only familiar themes, but replicative shots, dialogue, and thoughts. Mission Impossible: III duplicated several sequences from Lost, but Super 8 takes the Lost-iness to another level: the film centers around daddy issues, scary sounds emanate from the woods, characters “touch” the monster and “know” its soul, a “hatch”-like door slams violently from the sky into the ground, a mysterious villain is referred to as “Him.” While some of the similarities are more like easter eggs (Alias fans will notice a “Building 47” is briefly featured), the startling overlaps with Lost just make Abrams seem like a one-trick pony.
That said, the trick is a strong one. To those unfamiliar with Lost, Super 8 provides an entirely fresh and engaging narrative. And to those familiar with Abrams’s work, there are certainly worse things than retreading some of the best sci-fi work of the last decade (as someone who wrote a college admissions essay about Alias, I certainly enjoyed it).
In the age of movie blogs and 140 character insta-reviews, moviegoers seem to find a sick satisfaction out of tearing apart directors with Ambition. Whether it is Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, The Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer, or Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch, fans don’t just state that the movie is “bad” or a “waste of money” like they do for “Little Fockers.” There’s a special sort of vitriol reserved for filmmakers who aspire to bring to life a great vision—to put forth something truly original—and fall short. Abrams certainly hasn’t received such vitriol for Super 8, but the news stories have centered mostly around which movies Abrams did and didn’t “borrow” from. We all can agree Abrams didn’t reinvent the wheel here, but when directors aim to create a classic and fall short, instead of being spiteful toward their alleged hubris, let’s appreciate the film for what it is and applaud the attempt. By doing so, we lower the fear of failure and encourage filmmakers to take bold risks.
In the end, Abrams is still one of the best storytellers around, but has become a bit too comfortable in his genre and a bit too safe with his project selections. Let’s hope he passes up the Star Trek and Cloverfield sequels to dig into something a bit off his usual track. After all, this is the guy who started his career with Felicity. And has there ever been a ‘riskier’ decision in TV history than cutting off Keri Russell’s hair? I think not.