Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
Super 8 (2011)
J.J. Abrams’s “Super 8” is a film that’s been wrapped in mystery ever since it was announced ages ago. A short teaser gave the feeling that the film would be another monster on the loose story like Abrams had dealt with in “Cloverfield,” which he produced, except this time the story deals with more of a human element than had been done in that film. It’s true that there are a lot of special effects, but Abrams seems to be trying to meld them together with more fleshed-out characters this time around while using a similar background story.
Our heroes for this adventure are a group of kids that includes Joe (Joel Courtney), Cary (Ryan Lee), Charles (Riley Griffiths), and Alice (Elle Fanning). The year is 1979 and Charles is trying to make a zombie film using his Super 8 camera with the help of his friends. He has asked Alice to step in to play the role of a detective’s wife, but during her first scene, a horrific train crash occurs when a professor of theirs drives his truck onto the tracks and speeds into the oncoming locomotive.
Not long after, strange things begin occurring around this small town such as dogs running away, the sheriff disappearing, and the presence of the military who aren’t about to explain themselves. Trying to figure this all out is the town’s local deputy, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), who also happens to be Joe’s father. Meanwhile, the kids take advantage of the train wreck and the subsequent military presence to continue filming their movie. There’s also a little romance in the air as Joe and Alice become closer during shooting. However, things begin to take a turn for the worse as the incidents become larger with the sudden appearance of an unknown creature.
So, did Abrams’s new monster flick live up to expectations? Well, yes and no. With all the mystery surrounding the project, it seemed like it would be really hard to live up to the hype that had been created. On the other hand, the trailer made it look like a slightly different version of “Cloverfield,” which it basically is. So on that front, it delivered exactly what was expected, and that’s not a bad thing at all. “Cloverfield” has been mainly a movie of style with characters that were kind of flat, but “Super 8” seems to take the other approach with more interesting and developed characters while ending up a little light on the style aspects.
It’s not particularly a great movie, but it does have a fascinating nostalgic feel. There have already been comparisons made between it and early Spielberg classics like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” This is not only because of the inclusion of aliens in the story but because of the wonder surrounding the impact the aliens have on the community and the engaging characters involved.
Where “Super 8” didn’t really work well was in the film’s pacing. There were times when the film felt like it was going by rather slowly, particularly in the first half, but this was slightly overcome by the development of the main characters that we would come to follow throughout the story. The second half is where the film basically becomes a special effects bonanza with things blowing up and burning left and right as the kids struggle to rescue one of their friends. The film runs about 112 minutes, but the special effects-heavy third act made the film feel like it went on a little too long.
Then there’s the creature itself. This is another area of the film that has been surrounded in speculation and also where the film has drawn more comparisons to “Cloverfield.” If you were expecting a whole new creature design that will knock your socks off, it’s best to go ahead and dismiss those expectations well before you get to the theater. The creature here is basically a smaller duplicate of the “Cloverfield” monster. Abrams did a good job in building up the mystery surrounding the creature, only showing us bits and pieces of it at a time as it runs rampant through this small town, but when we finally see it, it’s a pretty big letdown not only in design but also in the implementation of the special effects.
While those elements were a bit disappointing, one surprising part of the film that worked were the performances from a cast that features no big names. In fact, almost all of the kids were new to film, the one major exception being Elle Fanning who has already worked with such big directors as Sophia Coppola, David Fincher, and Tony Scott. All of the kids deliver great, realistic performances that really help bring the movie together. It’s hard to imagine being new to movies and having to run around on a set where many of the effects will be added in post-production, all while trying to make it convincing, but they all do an admirable job.
While it didn’t turn out to be the great movie some thought it would be, “Super 8” still makes for an entertaining film. The parts that work (that feeling of nostalgia through homage, the performances) work really well, while the film’s pacing and some of the special effects bring it down a notch. The best part of the film ends up coming during the closing credits, so make sure to stick around for a few laughs. With the completion of this project, hopefully Abrams will now move on to a little project tentatively titled “Star Trek 2.” 3/4 stars.