Let’s get one thing out of the way early-on: Super 8 rips off/pays homage to, among others, almost everything in Spielberg’s oeuvre pre-1993. This might ruin the film for some. It really hurt at least one major section (most of act 3) for me. That aside, I won’t be talking about references in here. I’m surprised that I enjoyed Super 8.
Why am I surprised? Well for one, I’m not a JJ Abrams fan. Cloverfield – garbage. Star Trek – crap. MI III – forgettable. Lost – never hooked me. But these previous works are for another (likely never-to-be) post.
Abrams sticks with his monster formula in this one, but keeping it mostly hidden proves successful. His early half-reveals are fun and well done, including a great one in a gasoline puddle that is easy to miss. It’s the rare monster film (The Host, Alien…) that can reveal the creature early and still not disappoint. Abrams knows which side his suspense is buttered on (that makes absolutely no sense) and decides to hold out until the near end. And good for him: the monster is nothing special. It’s formulaic extra-terrestrial.
There’s some solid acting in this one, particularly by Elle Fanning, but some of the characters do get annoying. I know, I know, they’re kids. Kids are annoying. Well, not the kind of kids I want to watch for 2 hours. The young director (Abrams himself? If so…that’s pretty funny for a whole lot of reasons that I don’t have time to go into. But if you’ve seen it – think about it), is pushy, bossy, etc. He’s a director. But he’s also a kid and he’s the one character in which that aspect never shines through.
In the end, the main reason that Super 8 is suspenseful has very little to do with actual plotting. It’s Abrams camera. It’s tightly conceived, and very tense. My favorite sequence of the film is when the kids are on the back of a bus, under arrest by the government. They’re on a dark, isolated road, so of course they run into the monster. The vehicle stops cold. As the army commander-guy (that’s a technical term) says to his underling, “go outside,” Abrams drops the music, keeps the sound design at its diegetic minimum, and the camera slowly pushes down the front aisle of the bus and out the opening bus door into the vast darkness of the neighboring forest. It’s exhilarating and terrifying and, best of all, a fantastic personification of the next victim’s fear.
Abrams controls his pacing with lot of little buttons like the aforementioned – a camera move here, a nice close-up there. These add up and make for a well-designed first two acts.
The third act isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just that things start to push towards an obvious and inevitable end at the expense of what’s been interesting to that point: tested friendships, cinematic beats, and a monster the power of which we aren’t privy to. The final sequence kind of sucks, and it’s a shame, because for once, Abrams really had me.
Still, I like the film. Abrams seems right at home mixing the big budget crash and bang (evidenced in a pretty brilliant train wreck early on…though the fact that it leaves a survivor stretches credibility) and near-tears familial tensions. Sound like a familiar mixture?
Here’s what I’d love to see JJ do next: remake Cloverfield, but not have it be bad. There are three simple solutions to this: cast better actors, rewrite the script, and direct it like he directed Super 8.