By Matt Neufeld
Hollywood has only itself to blame for this torrid array of life-deflating, depressing and wholly derivative march-of-death-like stream of unimaginative, lifeless and unoriginal sequels, prequels, remakes, retreads, reinterpretations and even thinly-veiled homages–which end up resembling nothing more than montages of other, better earlier films–in this sigh-inducing summer of 2011.
And it’s only early June. Sigh.
It’s likely not going to get any better. Maybe it will get worse. We have yet to sit through some more comic book- and video game-inspired movies, more very-similar superhero movies, the third “Transformers,” a tenth (tenth!!) “Harry Potter” movie, and even—Crom is going to be very, very angry—a ridiculously unneeded remake of John Milius’ and Oliver Stone’s classic 1982 “Conan the Barbarian,” which may incite hordes of angry fans of the original to go on rampaging and pillaging raids through movie studio backlots, offices and conference rooms.
It’s no wonder then that most of the intelligent buzz about worthy films to see so far this young season has rightly centered around inventive, risk-taking, independent films, foreign films, documentaries and independent-minded films like, but not limited to, “Beginners,” “Beautiful Boy,” “Hesher,” “The Last Mountain,” Submarine,” “13 Assassins,” “The Conspirator,” and Warner Herzog’s latest documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”
So maybe it takes another one of these uninspired, over-done, frenzied, rushed, over-edited, under-written and derivative big-budget Hollywood monsters to remind us just how bad the situation is at the major studios. Thank you, “Super 8.” Now, there are going to be some major critics who are likely going to praise this muddled mess—and it really is a muddled mess—because they’re going to be sucked in by the above-average performances of six completely-likeable, accomplished and talented teens, a precise attention to period detail (although the songs on the soundtrack seem to have been picked from the bargain bin), the usual array of fancy special effects and loud noises, and the obvious—but far too-obvious, in the end—homage to Spielberg movies.
That’s what the tiresome J.J. Abrams—yes, tiresome—has crafted here—one big clip-job montage tribute show and homage to Steven Spielberg and some other ‘70s and ‘80s films. Yet, strangely, there’s Mr. Spielberg right there in the credits as a producer! Why, you know what? That doesn’t really make it a homage at all—you can’t conduct a tribute to yourself and get away with that, with universal praise. And therein likes one odd, complicated problem with the film, among many others—you can’t have your cake and eat it, too, in terms of trying to pay tribute to an obvious mentor, when that very mentor is listed in the credits as a producer!! It’s just, well, monster-movie creepy. Besides an over-riding problem of not being a very good homage, and having a problem of being so obvious, you’re wondering where the invisible mallets are that are whomping you on your head, there’s just no reason at this point in time to even be doing homages to Spielberg. I’m not sure if anyone told Abrams, but Steven Spielberg remains very vital and active and involved in the film industry, and he’s very much alive and healthy and working on other projects. It’s like awarding some of these over-blown entertainment industry life-achievement prizes to people in their still-tender middle ages—it’s just too soon.
So “Super 8,” as much as it tries to be, and wants to be, a Spielbergian-type film or a homage to Spielbergian films, it just ends up being an embarrassing rip-off of Spielberg films—and, yes, that’s right, all occurring with Spielberg on the project as a producer. It seems as if Abrams had this neato, nifty idea to make a film that worships Spielberg, with Spielberg on board, so the Amblin lawyers won’t march down to Los Angeles District Court and file a mound of libel, slander and copyright-infringement lawsuits.
“Super 8” tells the story of a group of likeable, adorable teenagers—all well-acted and well-cast, it does need to be noted—who are film and pop culture nuts, and they’re also aspiring filmmakers (of course!) who are hard at work in the summer of 1979 at making the best darn zombie film that they can make, with cheap props, actually pretty good make-up, a clunky story, teen-angst-hampered acting—and, yes, their parents’ Super 8 cameras. They communicate by walkie-talkies, sneak out of their houses at night, and film hilariously-constructed scenes at local landmarks. This is a great concept, and if Abrams (who wrote and directed) and Spielberg (he’s listed as one of several producers) had just stuck with the entire idea of some teens trying to make a movie using what resources they can scrounge up around their small mid-America-type small town, that simply would have been the better movie. What do you use, how do you use it, what obstacles do you face? How do teens overcome the very real obstacles of trying to make a small film literally in their rooms and backyards and lawns and small-town locales? This has all the makings of an inventive, fun film.
That’s not the film that occurs, though.
Alas, Abrams and Spielberg detour badly by introducing a trite, clichéd and over-done sci-fi monster-movie story that overwhelms, over-takes and soon smothers the kids-making-a-movie story. One night, while shooting a scene at a railroad depot in their small town, a U.S. Air Force cargo train roars through the kids’ scene—the savvy, gifted teen film director, expertly played by the wonderful Riley Griffiths, lights up and sees it as a great filmic opportunity, despite the noise! However, the train soon spectacularly derails—in one of many missteps, while the derailment is expertly done in terms of special effects, it’s also done at such an intense level, it actually ends up being too intense for the tone of the film—and the kids run for their lives. When the derailment ends, they leave the scene as the usual clichéd mysterious, foggy groups of soldiers chase them. Just before they leave the scene, they grab their Super 8 camera. They don’t realize until later that the camera may have captured something. But they do know that the military is looking for the car that sped out of the derailment scene.
The film then proceeds to follow the kids as they uncover what was on that train, what their Super 8 camera captured that night, why the military is so secretive about that cargo, why the military is conducting eerie, spooky operations in and around the town, why their high school science teacher is involved in a possible military conspiracy (that’s not giving anything away there), and how they can find, fight and defeat whatever it is the military is so concerned about in their town. There is also the age-old story of teens fighting parents and authority figures who don’t understand them, and don’t understand what they are doing—a worthy, universal theme—and there is even a budding teen romance, which is actually somewhat sweet and sincere.
“Super 8” proceeds to move along at a good pace in the film’s first and second acts, but as the sci-fi story continues and builds, the viewer uncomfortably realizes they’ve seen just about every plot point done before, but better, in Spielberg’s, and others’, movies. There’s something from “E.T.!” There’s many things from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” There’s something from “Jurassic Park,” including a group of screaming kids trapped in a mound of steel being pursued by a monster. There’s the lonely, cry-wolf, independent boy struggling against evil, uncaring parental and authority figures from “Empire of the Sun.” Add an obvious dash of “The Goonies,” “Stand by Me,” John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and, well, it’s a jambalaya where you recognize all the ingredients, but it just doesn’t have the right taste. And when everything literally explodes in a fury of far-too-real warfare—overly loud gunfights and explosions—in the third act, that’s when the film falls apart. Everything gets far too frenzied, rushed, muddled and wrapped-up in the last 30 minutes, as if the filmmakers were running out of time and money. There’s an entirely too-speedy race to the conclusion, and the backstory storytelling is told in a too-hurried flurry of exposition that almost leaves the story and backstory left in the explosive dust.
And, exposition-wise, several plot elements occur in the last 30 minutes that just destroy the previous tone, atmosphere, feeling and mood of the earlier, funnier and more human parts of the film. The special effects and last act tend to leave a cold, empty feeling to the proceedings. The conclusion is anti-climatic, slightly unexplained, slightly unclear, and even somewhat corny.
The problem is, when you attempt a homage, the homage has to be subtle, inventive and original in its own right. This is precisely what Spielberg and Lucas did with “Jaws”—a modern-day monster movie; “Close Encounters,” a very unique twist on classic sci-fi films; the original “Raiders” trilogy, which was influenced by ‘40s B-movie serials and cliff-hangers; and the original “Star Wars” trilogy, which was also influenced by those same early filmic elements. These films were also homages to earlier filmmakers—but they were completely inventive, original, distinctive and novel in their own rights.
“Super 8” aspires to this, but the clichéd third act, a somewhat grim and uncomfortable tone, some unclear plot elements, some violence that distracts from the story, and an abrupt ending bring down the more promising first and second acts.
Kudos, though, to the able group of well-acted teens, led by the smart, industrious character of Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney); and including Griffiths; Ryan Lee as a funny teen pyromaniac; Zach Mills; Gabriel Basso; and Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister. The kids consistently outshine their adult counterparts. Compliments to the production design, art, costuming, hair and props departments for some excellent late ‘70s period details, with period-appropriate clothes, hairstyles, cars, furniture and props. And the special effects crews obviously worked hard to create some elaborate set pieces, creatures and effects that are believable.
But what J.J. Abrams—who previously, inexcusably pilfered the “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible” franchises to equally disappointing results—needs to do in film, if he wants to succeed, is get away from known franchises, entities, characters and filmmakers, and write his own story, with his own set of characters, situations, times and places, and make all of that completely his own. When he accomplishes this, that is when his next film will succeed.
Super 8 (112 minutes, at area theaters) is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.
Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.