Spoiler warning: Various plot details of Super 8 – including the film’s ending – are discussed below. I’m also assuming you’ve seen the movie or are at least familiar with it enough to not require a plot recap.
I wonder if J.J. Abrams started out to tell a story about small town kids who wanted to make a movie, then worried that wouldn’t be enough to attract audiences and shoehorned in a space monster. Or maybe he started off with the space monster, then got sidetracked when he added the “kids make a movie” bit. Either way, the kids are the heart and soul of Super 8, and the space monster is little more than an afterthought, a wonder of set-up and mood, a whimper of pay-off and meh.
There are some patches where the kid-centric story threads fail to add up, most notably a sloppy mid-movie confrontation where Charles (Riley Griffiths) admits to Joe (Joel Courtney) that he, too, is in love with Alice (Elle Fanning) (it’s a pinch of best friend conflict that comes out of nowhere and disappears just as completely, as if Abrams was anxious to flesh out his young characters as real kids with real emotions, but couldn’t find the right hook), and the finale, where Joe strains to hold on to his mother’s locket (a piece of an “it’s OK to let go” theme that makes no sense in a movie that until this point had little to do with letting go, at least in the sense that this scene presents it; Devin Feraci does a fine job explaining the ending’s failure in this recent article).
Meanwhile, the entire notion of Joe’s mom’s death never quite feels as organic as it should; in relation to the two dueling plots (let’s call them Kids Make a Movie and Space Monster Invades Town), the dead mom backstory always feels tacked on in an effort to give the characters something to talk/sulk/argue about. Charting the character arcs of Joe and his dad (Kyle Chandler) (plus, perhaps, Alice and her dad, played by Ron Eldard), there’s not much noticeable change from the first reel to last, just a couple waves of grief. You could easily keep the mom alive, change a couple lines of dialogue and ditch a couple short scenes, and the characters would end up in the same emotional space when the credits roll.
But for the most part, thanks to some nice touches and admittedly great performances all around from the young leads, Kids Make a Movie works. What Abrams gets most right in his Spielberg pastiche are the little touches that made The Beard special: an honesty in presenting the chaos (and mess) of a large family home; a faith in the intelligence and independence of the young; a respect for the wonder with which kids and teens approach their passions. (While Abrams celebrates the Spielberg-ness of his film, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was also inspired by a non-Spileberg production of the same era, Explorers. I saw a lot of that Joe Dante film here.)
There’s so much that works in Super 8 when it forgets about the space monster that I wish that’s all it was, a coming-of-age drama with no sci-fi thrills and no trademark Abrams mystery. It would’ve worked, too – we come to like these kids quickly, and when they’re struggling to make their homemade zombie flick in the middle of the night, we grin at their energy. The Joe/Alice love story is sweet and sincere. The sidekick characters are funny without being caricatures. The retro setting (despite Abrams’ attempts to oversell a “gee, it sure is the past!” vibe with Wedding Singer-esque winking references to Walkmans and Rubik’s Cubes and “My Sharona”) offers pleasant nostalgia without making the story about pleasant nostalgia. I’d love to have spent two hours with these young people as they grow up in an eventful summer.
But would Abrams ever tell such a story? He’s so enamored with riddles and excitement and busy visuals, I don’t think he’d be interested enough to slow down and make a quiet film. And so he gives us Space Monster Invades Town, even though his heart’s so obviously not in it.
Maybe Abrams got too distracted, seeing enough of himself in his young characters that he spent too much time on them and not enough on the monster. Or, more likely, he was simply too enamored by the tease of the unknown, the idea in the early scenes where the monster could be anything, the gee-whiz factor of dropping this mystery into the laps of these kids. But here, Abrams reveals himself to be a puzzle box maker who forgot to put anything in the box (or, at least, who frowns once someone manages to open it, knowing the fun is over).
Watch this plotline unfold – he balks when it’s time to have all his answers pay off. He wants to keep the creature off screen for as long as he can, which lets the kids spend more time investigating (which involves not solving questions, but uncovering more of them).
By the third act, he knows he can’t keep building the mystery, but he shows so little interest in the reveal. With characters entering and exiting the story so randomly, with key characters left as if forgotten without full closure to their stories, with the monster waffling between frightening killer and misunderstood gentle giant, with the government conspiracy building to nothing in particular, with the “psychic bond upon touch” gimmick being little more than a storytelling cheat to get Joe out of a jam, with the small town exploding here and there just for the sake of explosions… it’s all as if Abrams overslept the morning the final act was due in class, so he just winged the presentation.
Abrams worked wonders with Mission: Impossible III, yet seems lost since. Following his disappointing Star Trek reboot (which, to be fair, he didn’t write, but he still deserves some heat for that story’s failures), it appears he’s cementing his status as a filmmakers who has mastered visual storytelling but still struggles with the mechanics of a solid screenplay. And if you want to pay homage to Spielberg, you better be an expert at both.