Friday, October 24, 2014

Movie Review: Super 8 (2011)

Super 8 (2011) written and directed by J. J. Abrams

During the summer of 1979, a group of boys led by Charles want to make a Super 8 short film for a competition. On the last day of school they recruit Alice to play the detective's wife in their film. They all sneak out at night to film a scene by the railway station. During the shoot, a train comes by. The train is derailed by a pickup truck and everything goes flying everywhere. After running around in a panic, the kids see their science teacher in the truck. He warns them about the dangerous cargo and starts waving a gun around, which is enough to scare them off. But not before gathering all their equipment, including the camera that's been running the whole time.

The kids try to resume a normal life but it turns out the train was a special Air Force train and the military has moved in to clean up the incident. But as people and dogs and mechanical equipment start disappearing, questions start mounting. What was really on the train? What's on the film they took? Will the kids finish their movie in time? What about the other big secret?

What other big secret? The movie opens with a shot of a local factor where their "No Accidents in X Days" sign is changed back to "1." Deputy Jackson Lamb's wife died there leaving him and son Joe alone. Joe is the sensitive one of the film makers--he does the make-up and makes miniatures too. He's excited when Charles recruits Alice and they have a growing interest in each other. Alice's dad doesn't want Joe around his daughter and Joe's dad has similar feelings about Alice though it is not really clear why. For me, the Joe/Alice plot line is the most interesting part of the movie.

The monster part of the movie is much less interesting. All the exposition about the monster is saved till the end but when it comes the information doesn't explain its actions earlier in the movie. Why is it stealing only certain specific items? Other than creating a spooky atmosphere, why does the monster's presence cause lights and other electrical and mechanical things to go crazy? The action sequences are exciting but they don't add together to make a coherent story. The military is depicted as a bunch of generic cartoonish baddies which makes them less compelling as villains.

The movie is clearly a homage to 1980s science fiction movies, especially the work of Steven Spielberg (who is a producer on the film). Viewers see bits taken from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E. T. The monster's face reminded me of Predator and its lair was reminiscent of Aliens. Viewers don't really see the monster till the end of the film as in Jaws. Things like that are fun to spot but they are also reminders of much better films.

I wish the film maker's had made the Joe/Alice story the main focus of the film and just used the train wreck and monster running around as background rather than a competing narrative. What could have been a great film is just a mediocre genre piece.

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