Here is the recipe for making a Super 8 in the comfort of your own home: take one part Stand By Me, add a good dose of E.T., and throw in as much Cloverfield monster as you can handle and BAM! You’ve got yourself Super 8.
Super 8 starts out with a funeral ““ Joe’s mother died in an accident at work. At the funeral, people pity Joe out loud because he is sitting on a swing and because his father “never had to be a dad.” Cut to four months later. Joe’s friend Charles is making a movie, and they’re all, plus three friends, involved in the production. This is great because I am 98% sure that that’s the only experience that J.J. Abrams can bring any emotional honesty to ““ write what you know, am I right? Charles tells Joe that he got Alice, a cute girl in their class, to be in the movie, too. Joe gets super excited because he is a middle school boy with a big ol’ crush.
That night, Alice takes her dad’s car (she is in middle school, but can handle the roads like a champ) and drives the boys down to a maybe-abandoned(?) train station outside of town. They don’t appear to use roads to get there, which is great because the dust from the ground and the extreme lens flare really let you know that Abrams is the man behind the scenes.
As they practice the scenes, a train is seen in the distance. Charles, desperate for “production values” and probably lens flare, demands that they film the scene as the train passes. They do so, but right when the action is about the end, Joe notices a white truck pull right onto the tracks and drive towards the train. Against all odds, the tiny truck derails the whole goddamn U.S. Air Force train (the kids seem skeptical about this, too), sending kids screaming and blazing metal flying all over the place.
Miraculously, none of the kids are dead. Even more miraculously, Charles, instead of being traumatized by his near death experience, is excited about the future of his film. And if that wasn’t enough, it turns out that the driver of the tiny truck SURVIVED. Amazing, right? And good thing, too, since the kids need to be warned against the dangers of an ominous “they” and of knowing too much. The crew takes off in a cloud of dust (in all that flying debris, the car received not one scratch! Talk about a good parking job), seconds before the military gets on the scene.
Shit gets wild from that point onward. Dogs start disappearing. Large electronics go missing. People vanish. But here’s the thing ““ there’s no real mystery. The trailer for the movie spoiled that there’s a big ol’ monster/alien running around, and seriously, it’d be an easy guess since that’s JJ’s trump card ““ don’t have any plot development? Add an aura of mystery and monsters! Forget the plot holes, we’ve got magnetic aliens in town!
And that’s actually the thing that gets me the most and the reason that I hesitate to compare this summer blockbuster with Stand By Me. Stand By Me was the emotional journey of a kid dealing with some serious grief and loss. Joe? In Super 8? He’s the most emotionally stable kid I have ever seen ever. He doesn’t fight with his friends. He butts heads with his father in only minor ways (and honestly, the fault lies more with Daddy-o than with the kid). He pursues a love interest in an age-appropriate if overly dramatic way. Instead of drinking or getting in with a bad crowd, he makes models and does the make-up for his friend’s film. There is no emotional journey for this kid to go through. He went through it during those four months that we weren’t shown.
And boy does this movie try to have emotional resonance. Between the dead mother, absentee parents, cold pizza, budding romances, friendship-dynamics, emotional confessions, you’d think something would resonate. But you’d be wrong. The attempts at emotional meaning were so clumsy as to be manipulative and insulting. No conflict lasts for more than a few seconds. Our hero Joe shrugs it all off and as an audience, it’s easy for us to shrug it off, too.
But despite all of this, it’s a fun movie. There’s action, there’s adventure, there’s cool CGI effects, there’s really solid kid-acting. If you don’t come in with any expectations, you won’t leave flustered and flabbergasted. I enjoyed the ride, and all the small scares and thrills that came with it.