Cinema Knife Fight: SUPER 8
by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(The Scene: An old-fashioned train station in a small town. It’s 1979, and a bunch of kids are filming a zombie movie with a Super 8 camera. LL SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA approach)
LS: Damn brats! Get out of here! We’ve got a movie to review.
KID 1: Gee, mister, can’t we just finish this scene? We snuck out of our houses late at night and everything to get this shot.
MA: Gee, mister? What is this, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER? This is 1979, not 1959. I grew up in the 70s, and we weren’t saying “gee, mister.”
KID 1: What are you complaining to me for? I’m just saying the lines. I didn’t write ‘em, you big jerk!
MA: That’s more like it.
LS: Who cares? (roars at kid) GET OUTTA HERE!
(Kids scream and run away.)
MA: Shall we start our review of SUPER 8?
SUPER 8 is the new movie by J.J. Abrams. He’s the guy behind TV shows like “Alias” and “Lost.” He also directed the recent reboot of the STAR TREK (2009) franchise.
MA: And he produced the great giant monster movie, CLOVERFIELD (2008).
LS: Yeah, yeah, I was getting to that.
This one is also produced by the legendary Steven Spielberg, which is fitting, because in a lot of ways, SUPER 8 feels like a homage to Spielberg’s early 80s films, especially E.T.: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL (1982).
Unfortunately, I hated E.T. I thought the effects were lame, especially the creature—good ol’ E.T. himself—who looked very stiff and puppet-like. And don’t get me started on the sappy, overly sentimental story.
MA: Yep same here. Back in 1982 I thought I was the only guy on the planet who didn’t like that movie.
LS: In comparison, SUPER 8 is definitely an improvement. But it’s not perfect.
MA: SUPER 8 didn’t remind me all that much of E.T., thankfully. Sure, it’s about an alien, and kids, but I thought this story stood on its own, even though it certainly did have the feel of a Steven Spielberg movie. I say this because one of the main plot points of E.T. was the connection between the boy and the alien, and here in SUPER 8, while this happens, it’s not the main focus—again, thankfully. I never felt I was watching “Me and my Alien Buddy,” which was a good thing.
LS: SUPER 8 begins with the death of Joe Lamb’s (Joel Courtney) mom at the factory where she worked. Joe is about 12 years old and it’s the summer of 1979. He’s taking the death of his mom pretty hard (which makes sense) as is his father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), the town’s deputy sheriff. The more Joe and his dad talk, the more it’s pretty obvious they really don’t know each other and don’t have a lot in common. Jackson wants his son to go to a sports camp to be more manly. Joe wants to spend the summer helping his friends finish a zombie movie they’re making. Considering that Joe’s life revolves around things like comic books and making Aurora monster models (mostly of Universal monsters of the 1930s – these models were pretty popular back then), he and his father couldn’t be more different.
MA: Yep, I had a whole bunch of those Aurora models.
LS: Yeah, I did, too.
MA: I was actually a bit disappointed that Joe only had the Hunchback of Notre Dame model. He should have had more. Oh well.
LS: He must have had more—they just didn’t show them. Right?
MA: How the hell do I know?
(A TRAIN’s whistle howls in the distance)
LS: Joe’s buddy Charles (Riley Griffiths) is directing the film, and the two have been friends since second grade. Charles is bossy, but then again this comes in handy for someone wanting to be a director. To make the movie more “commercial” he asks a girl at school, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), to play one of the characters’ wife, to give the movie a “love story” angle. She agrees and does a pretty great audition.
Joe is the make-up artist, and it’s clear early on that he has fallen for Alice. The thing is, she’s the daughter of the local troublemaker, Louis (Ron Eldard), who Joe’s dad has had to arrest on several occasions. There’s also a resentment because Joe’s mother was filling in for one of Louis’s shifts at the factory when she was killed, so Jackson kind of blames the guy for his wife’s death. Needless to say, neither Jackson nor Louis are very happy to see that their kids spending time together.
While filming their movie at a train station—much like this one—late at night, a truck jumps on the tracks and rams itself right into the train, causing a huge and violent derailment. The kids almost get killed, but are able to get away before “anyone” sees them. As for this “anyone” – it’s the US Air Force, and soldiers swarm the area soon afterwards. Something escaped from that train wreck, but they aren’t saying what. Soon, the soldiers are taking over and evacuating the whole town.
As the movie develops, we learn that the train was holding a strange alien life form captive, and now that it’s been set free, it is scrambling around town, taking equipment it needs to construct a spaceship to get back home. So, just like E.T., the SUPER 8 monster wants to “Go Home.”
The kids get caught up in the drama of the Air Force, the monster, and their own lives.
MA: Not exactly an original story. While I really liked the characters and dialogue in this movie, its premise, the alien who’s “really just frightened and only wants to go home” —-
(A loud sympathetic “awwww” sound erupts from the audience.)
Yep, thank you, all of you just joining us now after the last episode of OPRAH. As I was saying, this premise didn’t wow me. Been there, done that. Speaking of Mr. Alien, what did you think of the monster?
LS: I think Abrams did a good job with the monster.
MA: Really? I was a little disappointed.
LS: We don’t see it up close very much (which was similar to CLOVERFIELD), and for most of the movie we see what it has done, but not the creature itself. It seems to move in a spider/crab –like way, and actually seems pretty alien in its appearance and movements (much unlike the awful E.T.).
MA: I thought the movie worked well in spite of this. The story was strong even while we weren’t seeing the alien. The problem I had was once we do see the alien, it’s really late in the game. As much as I enjoyed this movie, it could have used more alien screen time.
LS: I think it works that they build up suspense and don’t show the monster right away. What exactly does this thing look like? In too many monster movies lately, they show the creature way too early in the game. I thought this one was well-paced.
MA: I was also a bit disappointed with the look of the alien, mostly because CGI aliens just don’t cut it for me. I always feel like I’m watching a video game. Abram’s monster in CLOVERFIELD was one of the better CGI alien monsters. For some reason, this one reminded me of a Transformer/alien hybrid. I think it was the way it moved.
LS: Also unlike E.T., this isn’t a sweet little story about kids bonding with a cute guy from outer space.
(A huge cheer erupts from the audience.)
LS: I think the monster is actually kind of scary, and at one points starts abducting some humans as well (including Alice), and later we find out it’s for food. It’s this more gritty take on the monster—that it’s not safe and cuddly—that differentiates it from Spielberg’s so-called “classic.”
MA: I agree. The monster eating people for food was definitely one of the better parts of the story, but sadly it’s mentioned all too briefly. It should have been more a part of this movie.
LS: Yeah, I’m with you on that. It certainly could have used even more “scariness.”
(TRAIN is getting closer. Whistle is louder)
LS: I actually thought the monster might end up looking like the creature from CLOVERFIELD, to have some kind of continuity between the two films, but no such luck.
MA: Yeah, that would have been a cool connection. Oh well.
LS: However, despite the differences, there are also several scenes throughout the movie that are overly sentimental and sugary, and these do the best at conjuring up the feel of those old Spielberg films, especially toward the end. They’re also the aspects of this film I didn’t like.
MA: I didn’t think there were too many of these, thankfully.
(The freight TRAIN roars by, suddenly derailing and crashing into the countryside)
LS: Dammit, we’re trying to finish a review here.
MA: You’re all heart. We should go see if there are any survivors who need our help.
LS: Wait, wait. We’re almost done.
Overall, the acting is pretty good. First off, I like Kyle Chandler a lot (he plays the coach on the excellent TV show “Friday Night Lights” —which is in its last season—so I hope Chandler is able to make the jump to movies pretty easily).
MA: Yeah, Chandler is fine, but SUPER 8 really isn’t his movie. It belongs to the kids, and while I really enjoyed the kids here, the film could have used a stronger adult presence. I wanted to see more of Chandler’s character. Specifically, I wanted his character to do more. He’s got decent screen time, but he always seems to be on the periphery of the action. I wish he had been more like the Timothy Olyphant character in THE CRAZIES (2010).
LS: Well, at least he’s not completely passive like some movie dads. When the Air Force takes him prisoner at one point, he doesn’t just accept it, he fights back. And the kids are all pretty believable. I thought Courtney is fine as Joe, although he does seem a bit generic at times.
MA: Really? I thought Courtney was terrific. I thought he gave the best performance in the movie. He was sincere, sympathetic, and eventually he proves himself to be quite the hero. I thought his performance was key, because if you don’t like this kid, then the film’s not going to work.
LS: I dunno. There were a few times where Joe seemed kind of cliché to me. Courtney does a good job with the role in spite of that, though. Another kid who stands out is Ryan Lee as Cary, a kid obsessed with fire and pyrotechnics, and who is in charge of explosions and effects for the kids’ movie. He has some funny lines.
MA: Yes, Lee was great. I also enjoyed Riley Griffiths as Charles, the kid making the movie. Sure, he’s the “fat kid,” but he’s not cliché, in that he’s strong, assertive, and bossy. Also, his large family is a hoot.
LS: Yeah, I thought Charles was pretty good. His family, too.
But it’s Elle Fanning who pretty much steals every scene she’s in. She’s very good here, and clearly has acting chops that are above and beyond the rest of the kids in the film. Her “audition” for the kids’ movie was so good, it made me feel like I was watching someone who was going to be a star.
MA: I agree with everything you said about Fanning, but I also think Courtney was just as good.
I also really enjoyed the connection that Alice and Joe shared. They’re both without their moms, they both have dads that are struggling, and it was fun to see them become attracted to each other. It was an attraction I bought and believed in.
LS: Yep, it definitely worked.
MA: Even though this movie was about the kids, there were a couple of other memorable adult performances here. Ron Eldard certainly made an impression as Alice’s dad, Louis. At first, he comes off as a good-for-nothing loser, but eventually he earns some sympathy and is able to redeem himself. I also enjoyed David Gallagher as Donny, the local pothead who works at the store where Charles develops his movie film. He also has the hots for Charles’ sister and later on, because of these feelings, gets rooked into helping the kids.
LS: Yeah, Gallagher is pretty funny as the stoner guy.
MA: Interestingly enough, other than Fanning’s Alice, there really aren’t any other women characters in this movie. For a while there, I thought the alien fed only on women since there didn’t seem to be any women in town!
LS: I noticed that, too. And both of the main kids’ mothers are dead.
(Something is approaching them in the mist. They can hear something scuttling closer)
LS: I thought Abrams did a fine job directing this one. He’s proven he’s got the goods. But I wish he wasn’t so interested in aping Spielberg and seeking his approval. The Spielbergian elements are the ones that don’t work as well. Abrams is better when he’s doing things in his own “voice.” And frankly, some of the sappier scenes also result in lapses of logic, where emoting is more important than actually thinking.
MA: I didn’t think there were too many of these sappy scenes. Which ones were you thinking about?
LS: Well, like I said before, it’s especially toward the end. Like when Joe “bonds” briefly with the alien, even though he had just saved his girlfriend by being eaten by it. Of course, that’s explained by the fact that he’s desperate not to be killed, so it makes sense in the moment. But he just seems way too quick to empathize with this dangerous creature from then on. And there are some overly sentimental moments throughout the film.
MA: But I agree with you about lapses in logic. There were parts to this movie that didn’t make much sense to me. For example, the train accident is caused by a scientist who drives his truck onto the tracks in order to— as we learn later—free the alien. Now, I realize this guy was desperate, but aren’t there better/easier ways to free something than derailing a train?
LS: Yeah, if he had time to plan it out all out—which he did—he could have done it without risking his life.
MA: I also thought a lot of the story was rushed and some interesting points were simply glossed over without being developed. The alien technology used to build its ship is mentioned oh-so-quickly. It’s a cool concept, but it’s mentioned in a flash and not reiterated— look down to find that dropped popcorn kernel on your shirt and you missed it!
LS: Those weird Rubik’s cube things were cool!
MA: They were cool, but they weren’t in the movie all that much.
All the dogs run away as soon as the alien arrives. Why? Does the alien eat dogs? The alien eats people, we kinda know that, as it’s mentioned in a very brief scene. An alien that eats people? This is scary stuff! It needs to be in this movie more!
LS: Yeah, what was up with the dogs?
MA: We also never really learn why the military is so interested in this alien, other than the fact that it’s the military, so of course they’d be interested in such an alien and in covering up the whole ordeal from the public. The portrayal of the military here is extremely clichéd. They’re reduced to the “bad guy” heavies who are only interested in cover-ups and killing aliens.
Repeat after me. “Alien—good.” “Military—bad.” Cliché! Who wrote this? The Frankenstein monster?
All this being said, I did like SUPER 8. I thought the kids were great. They were memorable, they were fun, and when all hell breaks loose, you really care for them as they go through their ordeal.
I also automatically connected to them since the story takes place in 1979, and I was around the same age in the late 1970s, and so it brought back a lot of memories. Speaking of which, I loved the 70s songs on the soundtrack, and I enjoyed the HALLOWEEN poster on the wall. Director J.J. Abrams successfully captured the feel of 1979.
Like you, I thought Abrams was fine at the helm. There were a couple of very intense scenes, the initial train crash scene I thought was terrific….
LS: I thought the train crash was really over the top. A little truck causes that much damage? Everything is flying around like crazy—for what feels like a long time—and it almost defies logic that none of the kids gets killed by flying chunks of metal and that their “getaway car” still runs, considering how close it was to the train station.
MA: All true, but I still liked the scene, and later in the movie when all the weapons/tanks went haywire, that was also intense. These were my favorite parts of the film, and I wish there had been more of them. I also liked the sequence when the alien attacks the bus on which the kids were being held prisoner by the military.
Abrams also wrote the movie, and I think he gets an A for creating likable characters and for telling an exciting story, but as far as the threat goes, it really wasn’t all that terrifying and certainly not original. The alien who just wants to go home? We saw that in ET, and even in John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982), and even “the monster motivated by fear;” we saw that in CLOVERFIELD. And this alien is certainly not The Thing or Cloverfield!
The few intense scenes in this movie were excellent. There should have been more of them.
LS: I agree. I really liked this movie, but I didn’t love it. I wish Abrams had relied more on his own sensibility than trying to emulate his idol, Spielberg.
Oh yeah, and stay for the end credits. They show the whole zombie movie the kids were working on, and it’s pretty funny!
I give it three knives. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if this movie became a hit.
MA: Yeah, it does have that “hit” feel to it, doesn’t it?
I certainly liked it. I found it to be enjoyable enough. It’s got a great group of kid characters, a few good adult ones, an engrossing story, but an alien we hardly get to know, and while the story is engrossing, it’s not original. We’ve seen this tale before. Still, Abrams does such a good job with the material, you don’t really care; you’re having too much fun.
I also give SUPER 8 three knives.
(The mist clears to show a giant E.T. bobbing his head up and down, accompanied by ALF)
E.T.: Do you have phone? E.T. must phone home.
ALF: Yes, and I need to call Melmac. Do you think they’ll accept the charges from here?
E.T.: Do you have any Reese’s Pieces?
ALF: Or cats?
(LS screams and runs away)
MA (in sugary sweet voice): Why yes, I have a phone.
E.T. (smiles): Phone— please.
MA: Why, certainly. Here you go. (Hands E.T. sparkling sticks of dynamite.) (MA turns around and blocks his ears. Behind him there is a HUGE EXPLOSION.)
Who says I don’t have a dark side? Well, I’d better go tell LL that the coast is clear. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next week with a review of another new movie.
(MA walks off in search of LS, as bits and pieces of E.T. fall to the ground. When the smoke clears, we see ALF is still standing there.)
ALF: What about me?
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives SUPER 8 – three knives
LL Soares also gives SUPER 8 – three knives