Written and Directed by J.J. Abrams
So I know it’s Alien Invasion Month and that the key requirements of Sound on Sight’s ongoing theme are quite simple: a) aliens and b) invading. I also know that apart from the U.S. military’s invasion of small town Ohio, there’s not a whole lot of that second part in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, least of all from its star extraterrestrial, a recently escaped interplanetary alien-spider-gorilla who’s been exacting revenge on the government that studied him by abducting townsfolk and household appliances to rebuild his ship constructed from white, morphing Rubiks cubes. It’s all very technical, if you must know.
Super 8 begins, in prototypical Spielbergian fashion, with a broken home. Joe (Joel Courtney) sits on a snow-covered swingset, clutching in one hand the locket of his mother, all while his father and the town’s Deputy Sheriff (Kyle Chandler) mopes about the kitchen inside. Joe’s mother has just died in a freak factory accident, a tragedy whose guilt is laid on extra thick because she was only covering the shift of town drunk Louis Dainard (Justified’s Ron Eldard). To say that Abrams isn’t effective in drawing out sappy somber opening notes like this would be a lie. His sweeping cameras, gleaming post-production sheen and plenty of Michael Giacchino exploitation work in tandem to give us a case of the sads. That is, until we jump to the following summer, a transition abruptly heralded by the opening snare of “Don’t Bring Me Down.” If the driving groove of Electric Light Orchestra weren’t enough to scream 1979 in your face, the disco jokes and bedroom walls plastered with George Romero posters push it over the edge. Super 8 is chock full of its time’s culture, but it feels about as lived in as a self-storage unit that hasn’t been opened in forty years.
Its cultural references are, in part, why Super 8 feels so diabolical. Abrams pulls from Raiders of the Lost Ark’s government warehouse secrets and the “big bad grownups” in E.T. and makes no attempt to hide it — note that Spielberg shares a producing credit. Why else is Noah Emmerich’s vengeful colonel so needlessly ruthless? Why else does every parent in Lillian, Ohio seem to completely misunderstand his child? This is an unabashed nostalgia trip through the better parts of Amblin Entertainment’s back catalogue, an Abrams production that is informed through its cinephilia as much as it is directly guided by it. Joe spends most of his time making home movies with pal Charlie (Riley Griffiths), an aspiring teenage director and accomplished loudmouth who seems to spend most of his time capitalizing on how the catastrophic train derailment that set our alien loose in the first place ups his zombie flick’s production value. So mint! Nods to Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-up Handbook and Ben Burtt’s Star Wars soundscapes are giggle-inducing upon first watch, but Super 8 does little with its classic re-appropriations and even less with its characters’ own cinematic project, here reduced to a humorous footnote in the end credits.
Abrams makes the gang’s finished film, The Chase, deliberately low-rent and undeniably charming, but there’s an irony that the canned dialogue its teenage screenwriters commit to celluloid is as subtle as the verbalized problems of Super 8’s characters. Kyle Chandler capably turns Coach Taylor into a dogged public servant and a flawed father figure, but his failure to connect to Joe’s passion for monster movies and zombie makeup is never rectified. Ron Eldard’s self-loathing lush enjoys a similarly botched reunion with his daughter (Elle Fanning, in a standout performance as The Chase’s one capable actor and Joe’s love interest). All of this is underscored in Super 8’s one true moment of empathy, an admittedly ham-fisted appeal from Joe to our alien, which crests in the visually extravagant downpour of an exploding water tower. The fathers’ reunions with their wayward creatives are met with hugs and little merit whatsoever. In a month chock full of alien invasion movies, here it’s Abrams himself that’s the invader, tricking the senses with sentimentality and surface level nostalgia. For a film that so bluntly professes its fixation on letting go of the past, it seems like Abrams is the only one still clinging to his.
– David Klein