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Super 8

Dir: J.J. Abrams

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Paramount Pictures

112 Minutes

Even when Steven Spielberg produces a film it still has his directorial fingerprints all over it. Look no further than ’80s fare such as Gremlins and Poltergeist: seasoned horror filmmakers Joe Dante and Tobe Hooper may be listed as the director of each movie, but both films certainly have that Spielbergian feeling of being set in Anytown USA, where something malevolent but magical is about happen. In Super 8, director J.J. Abrams may have set out to create an homage to Spielberg (who produces), but instead he sketches out a pale facsimile. It should be a winning formula: the quiet, empty spaces of Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets the childlike dreaminess of E.T. Yet at its least successful, Super 8 instead meshes Cloverfield with the most shrill sections of The Goonies.

Taking us way back to a small town in Ohio circa 1979, Abrams apes the usual Spielbergian tropes of absentee parents, the bonds of teen friendship and the clumsy fumblings of first love set against possible intergalactic contact. But rather than beat a fiery red like that damnable heart in E.T.’s chest, Super 8 feels more like an empty exercise, a paint-by-numbers reproduction of a masterwork drawn on lined paper with water colors.

Young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), still distraught over his mother’s accidental death, finds solace making movies with his friends. His father Jack (Kyle Chandler from “Friday Night Lights”), the town deputy, is also reeling from the death and unable to communicate with his son. School is out for the summer and Joe is the makeup guy for a zombie picture shot on Super 8 and directed by his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), whose out of control younger siblings resemble Richard Dreyfuss’ unruly kids in Close Encounters. One night, Joe and his friends sneak out past midnight to film a scene at an old railway station where they conscript the help of Alice (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the man who is involved in the accident that claimed the life of Joe’s mother. While filming, the group witnesses a train derailment that is as heart stopping and terrifying as the plane crash scene in the first episode of “Lost.” All of the kids survive the fiery explosion, but something has escaped from those derailed cars, something a cadre of shadowy Air Force soldiers led by Noah Emmerich will stop at nothing to contain.

Up until this point, Abrams has spent a considerable amount of time developing Joe and his various friends such as Charles, the fat wannabe auteur and George A. Romero fan. It is refreshing to see young boys dreaming young boy dreams (à la The Explorers and Stand By Me) rather than hunting for pussy, swilling beer and uttering non-stop swear words. Each of Joe’s friends is likable enough, especially Fanning as his budding love interest. Like Joe, Alice has an empty relationship with a father (Ron Eldard) also consumed by grief. The way the two recognize the hurt in one another is touching and genuine.

If there is one thing that Spielberg has mastered, it’s the reveal of the monster in his films. He kept the shark in Jaws off-screen for most of the running time (mainly for technical reasons) but when that Great White finally does appear, it’s a doozy. And think about the first time the T-Rex rears its ugly head in Jurassic Park: it’s still scary and effective. Abrams, on the other hand, did not have the technique mastered in Cloverfield and keeps the shadowy alien out of view for as long as possible here. It’s no wonder – his extra-terrestrial is the weakest part of the film. He effectively teases us at first, but when the big reveal finally does arrive, it’s not worth all the hullabaloo. When Abrams finally reveals the alien’s backstory, he breaks the tried and true “show don’t tell” rule, outlining its motivations in the most perfunctory of storytelling no-nos. It’s not even a particularly interesting tale, making the alien an unwelcome intruder in its own movie. Think about the aliens that appear only in the final moments of Close Encounters. As Richard Dreyfuss steps towards them, it is impossible not to feel a sense of wonder, but Spielberg also allows these beings to retain a shroud of mystery. Abrams does nothing of the sort here, leaving only a cloak of apathy around his creature.

Super 8 finally falters in the end when Abrams allows his relationships to collapse into melodramatic schmaltz. It is inevitable that Joe and Alice will reconcile with their fathers but the emotion there feels inauthentic. Joe keeps his mother’s locket close, an interesting symbol of her loss. But when he and Alice accidentally (well, hamfistedly maneuvered by Abrams) watch an old film of his mother, Super 8 slips into maudlin hogwash. Neither Chandler nor Eldard’s character is well-drawn enough to earn any sort of reconciliation with their child. Abrams seems more concerned with emulating the Spielbergian way than mining the true emotion that can be felt in Close Encounters, Jaws or E.T. Super 8 is an interesting exercise in respect, but the torch has not been passed.

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