I did not like JJ Abram’s film “Super 8″ which surprised me because I enjoy his “Star Trek” film so much.
Where did “Super 8″ go wrong?
I feel it was because the story was fundamentally poor in its plot, themes, and characterization.
There also was the failure of the runtime which was plumped up by scenes that were unnecessary
and a lack of momentum or driving impetus.
But let’s start with the story structure:
It starts off with not one but three “scenes of transition.”
We see Joe (a pubescent young teen–transition!) morose at the wake of his tragically killed mother…
and then right into the Last Day of School Before Summer Break!
These kinds of scenes are pretty common movie starters. They are intended to give us a sense of ‘people at a time of change’ and can give the story its “challenges the characters must face and triumph over.”
Not bad all said but having these two scenes put together led to dragging down the story–not to mention the brief scene that actually comes before these two in the factory where we see the “Days Without an Injury” sign being changed over.
This all led to a slooooow feeling. Couldn’t some of this be filled in later as backstory? Yes, it could have.
JJ Abrams included a number of scenes that did not add to the story including:
1. Deputy Lamb telling his son Joe that he was going to send him away to a baseball camp over the summer.
2. The dropping off/picking up of the film at the camera store. These ‘set up’ that the clerk character…why? Necessary? No.
3. The “dogs have left the county!” scenes. Did we ever even see Joe’s dog? Did we ever see it come back? Ugh.
4. The “concerned citizens townhall meeting.” This was for what? For Deputy Lamb to find out about the Air Force’s radio frequencies from an old HAM radio user…oh.
5. The Sheriff learns about Walkmen Tape Players (how retro!) before being attacked.
There are others to be sure but I’ll leave it at that for now.
Let’s turn to how the ‘facts/events/motivations’ of the story are inherently confused:
The Science Teacher from Lillian follows the train carrying the Alien all over the United States then decides to “free the Alien” by waiting until the train comes through Lillian and drives his truck onto the tracks to crash the train.
Coincidences of the train’s passage through the town of a traitorous Scientist Who Sympathizes With The Alien aside, we are expected to believe that when a truck is hit by a train the train will fly apart, derail, burst into flames, send entire train cars hurtling through the air…and the driver of the truck will live.
We are to accept that the Air Force arrives at the train wreck immediately (were they on the train?) but cannot figure out how to stop a car driving away (“Anyone get a license plate!?”).
They find Kodak brand film boxes at the site of the crash and then don’t think twice when they see teenagers filming in town.
We are told that the guy who feels guilty about Joe’s mom dying the day that she fills in for him at the factory is angry about Joe hanging out with his daughter. Huh? Why? I can understand Deputy Lamb having a grudge or bitterness, but having Alice’s dad give us this “Romeo and Juliet” vibe just doesn’t jibe with me.
We are told that the Alien ‘just wants to go home’ and we are meant to feel sorry for it I guess?
But the Alien seems to be attacking and kidnapping people to save for late-night snacks. Are we now just to shrug this off as a “oh well, everybody’s got to eat” kind of thing? E.T. liked Reese’s Pieces.
When the Alien attacks the bus that Joe and his friends are in with the Air Force guys, I totally saw it coming. As they were on the bus, I thought: “Alice has mentally connected with the Alien and told it that Joe and her friends are cool and will help it.”
So when the Alien attacked I wasn’t surprised because I thought that it was trying to help the kids but it turned out that the Alien just was kinda randomly eating people. Gobble gobble! Uhhhh, what?
So the theme of the film is….Grief can be overcome. Right?
We start the film off at a wake, and Joe’s locket with the picture of he and his mother is a reappearing plot device.
When Joe has his ‘climatic moment’ he tells the Homesick Alien “Bad things happen. I know, bad things happen.”
And then when the Alien’s Homemade Spaceship is drawing all the metal in the city towards it like the X-Men’s Magneto is pissed off, Joe looks one last time at the locket and let’s it go. Ahhhh. Catharsis.
But JJ Abrams wasn’t satisfied with just that. He needed to really kick it up a notch! How?
By actually showing character growth and change in Joe? By establishing the relationship between Joe and his Mom?
No, by doing some pretty weird choices like…
1. Having Joe descend into the Alien’s Lair through the graveyard, conveniently discovered by Joe as he lounged on his mom’s grave marker.
2. Alice’s mother also be gone–her vacancy is spoken of by Alice’s dad.
3. Alice watches home movies of Joe as a baby with his Mom that are silent and show the mom with her hair blowing around like she’s in a shampoo commercial.
As an aside, can I just complain for a moment about the “Save The Princess” trope that
happens here and in virtually every movie with a young male hero?
a. Woman is introduced
b. Sexual tension
c. Woman is kidnapped or stolen away by mafioso or dragons
d. Male hero saves her, making out ensues
Booooo. Aside from “Die Hard” this ol’ cliche is one of my least faves.
But enough of the ranting about the story line,
let’s move onto…
There isn’t much in the way of well-rounded characterization in the film.
We know that our hero Joe must overcome his grief (and of course, ‘get the girl’…see ‘save the princess’ rant above)
but that’s about it.
He’s able to have a bit of a confrontation with his father about him seeing Alice and we’re given the lines from Joe:
“She’s kind! She’s nice to me!”
Did kids ever say “kind”? I grew up in the early 80′s and that word had left the vocabulary of youth by then I guess.
The character who I liked the best was actually Charles, the young film director.
His attention was spurned by Alice, he was an ambitious and talented film buff, he was able to confront Joe in a realistic way, and is able to interact with his family in more interesting ways than the other youth.
Well, that’s not saying much. The troupe of youngsters is too big for the purposes of the story and we are left with a “firebug with braces”, a “cowardly kid”, another “forgettable kid who gets injured”, and of course Alice and Joe who are pretty uninspired and flat characters.
HOW SUPER 8 COULD HAVE BEEN A BETTER MOVIE….
1. Just jump us off with the school letting out for summer scene and give us then the set-up of Joe suffering from his mother’s untimely death and perhaps even that he won’t be able to shoot the movie because his Dad is sending him away to baseball camp. “Well, then let’s shoot the movie this weekend!” Give a ‘time crunch/race’ element to kick off the kids’ movie project.
2. Focus on the perspective of the youth. There are way too many scenes without them. Why do we have the scene of the Air-Force guys with the injured Science Teacher? Or the scenes in the Police Station? Give us the feeling of children locked in a crisis that the adults are not able to handle. This creates its own tension: just like adults were powerless to save Joe’s mom, they are now powerless on a large scale.
3. Cut out the “Scooby Doo” scene of the kids breaking into the school and sitting around reading manila folders and reviewing movies like The Bloodhound Gang meets the Warren Commission.
4. Drop the ‘Alien is just a weird looking E.T./Shelob thing that wants to go home!’ thing and create the Alien as a mysterious Creature whose intentions, origin, and purpose are more difficult to grasp and understand–like the grief that Joe is experiencing.
5. Give Joe a reaction of anger when he finally learns that Alice has been keeping the truth about her father’s absence at work indirectly leading to his Mother’s death. This will give a tension that must be overcome between the two, a “lover’s quarrel” in a sense. This will lead to…
6. Joe being the captive in the Alien’s Lair and it is Alice aided by Charles who come to save him. Grief can be helped with the support of loved ones (Alas, it never is fully defeated–it only is coped with) and Joe’s Dark Night of The Soul with the Grief Alien could be triumphed over with the aid of Alice and Charles. By the way, why did JJ Abrams decide to have the Fireworks kid come with him into the Lair? We don’t care about him or their relationship! Ugh.
7. The Alien escapes or disappears in the end. Not vanquished, just dealt with. Joe is reconciled with Alice, Charles gains new respect from his family and finishes his (awesome) movie, and roll end credits.
AND THE BIGGEST LET DOWN WAS….
Speaking of the end credits!!
At the end of the movie I was very disappointed. I thought that the story line was so hackneyed and sloppy that there
must be some kind of explanation!
And that explanation could be: That all of the movie was created in the mind of Joe. That’s right. At the train station while they film Alice’s big ‘goodbye scene’ maybe Joe’s imagination takes over and the rest of the movie was intended by JJ Abrams as a look inside the mind of an adolescent boy.
As the end credits rolled and they played the ‘super 8′ movie created by the youngsters, I thought for sure that we would not see any evidence of the tragic events actually included in the film. I thought that JJ Abrams would be smart enough to show us the movie without any sign that the train actually crashed or the Air Force came to Lillian or anything like that so we could imagine that the filming was mundane and the movie we just watched was the fantasy of Joe as a way to cope with his mother’s death. Nope.
That’s it. Just an ugh.