erik lundegaard

Super 8

Super 8 (2011)


The problem with making a Spielbergian movie is that it gets compared to Steven Spielberg’s movies.

J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” is a total homage. It’s set in 1979, when Spielberg was at the height of his powers. The main character, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), is a sensitive boy who loses his mother as the movie begins, so the single-parent component is in place. He and his friends tool around on Huffy bikes, a la Elliott and his friends, and they encounter an extra-terrestrial that has crashlanded on earth, attacks humans as viciously as a shark, and just wants to go home. It’s “Close Encounters,” “Jaws,” and “E.T.,” all rolled into one.

But the magic isn’t there. We get magical components, but they’re just not connected properly.

Example. The movie is called “Super 8” because a bunch of kids in Lily, Ohio are making an amateur zombie flick with an 8 millimeter camera for a local filmmaking contest, and while they’re filming a scene at a train station, one of their teachers, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman, who played Mayor Royce on “The Wire”), drives his pick-up truck onto the tracks and into the way of a high-speed train. A massive train wreck results, the kids flee, but the camera, dropped on the platform, keeps filming.

What it films is the key to everything that happens from then on.

Cool! So when does this super 8 film come into play? At the 11th hour, when the entire town’s already been evacuated, when we’ve already had a half-dozen glimpses of the alien that escaped the train wreck, and when Joe’s father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) has been imprisoned by the U.S. military for asking too many questions. And even then it only serves to convince one man, Deputy Lamb himself, that what he’s pursuing, what the Air Force is hiding, is an alien that escaped the train wreck. And it does this off camera.

Or take two scenes. Joe’s dog, Lucy, whom we’ve barely seen, goes missing, and Joe puts up a MISSING DOG sign on a community bulletin board. Then he steps back, the camera pulls back, and we see the entire bulletin board is filled with MISSING DOG signs. Spooky.

Later, Deputy Lamb is told by another police officer that Lucy has been found in another county. That’s true of all the dogs that have gone missing. He’s then handed a map with markers where all the missing dogs have turned up. Their town, in the center, is completely blank. Spooky.

The problem? Both of these scenes take place after we’ve seen one, possibly two attacks by the alien, which is a shadowy figure here, but which we know to be huge, powerful, fast, arachnid. (Super 8 legs, as it were.) We’ve seen a pack of dogs flee from its approach. We’ve seen it lift a cop car in the air and drag a gas station clerk from a mini-mart. Thus the community bullet board scene, and the scene with the map, which should be spooky moments, are really “No shit, Sherlock” moments. We’re given circumstantial evidence when we’ve already witnessed first contact.

Why didn’t Abrams combine the two “missing dogs” scenes and place them before the attack on the Sheriff? Lucy goes missing, we see the bulletin board, and instead of Joe doing nothing with this information (as in the movie), he goes to his father, from whom he’s estranged, and tries to tell him. But Jackson’s distracted, and he knows his son to be foolish and frivolous, so he doesn’t pay attention. Which is when the other police officer brings him the map. And Jackson looks at his son with something like respect, beginning the bond that will adhere by the end of the film, then back at the map with increasing concern.

Then you can go gas station. Maybe. I might not even have done that. It’s still too much of a reveal too early in the film.

That’s one thing Steven Spielberg knew: When to hide the alien/monster and when to reveal it. I’m not sure Abrams has that talent.

The kids in the movie are alright: Cary (Ryan Lee), the buck-toothed, braces-wearing, pyro kid; Martin (Gabriel Basso), the dull, tall kid cast as the adult in the film because he’s the dull, tall kid; and the fat, bossy director, Charles (Riley Griffiths), who’s the best friend of Joe, and who convinces Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the pretty girl in class, to join his cast to add “an emotional element.” Joe lights up around her in a way that’s pretty adorable, and their conversations together, or, even better, their silences, are also pretty adorable: sweet scenes of first love. That’s what Abrams gets right. He takes you back to a time when that other person could make you tingly with her mere presence.

The movie opens with a great visual shorthand: the local plant, where “Safety is our primary goal,” switching its “Days since last accident” sign to “1”: Joe’s mother. She was filling in for Alice’s father, Louis Dainard, a long-haired hot-rodder, and alcoholic, who’s already had several run-ins with Deputy Lamb, and the fact that he can’t make it to work this day, and Joe’s mother fills in for him and dies, seals the deal. Each man reminds the other of the tragedy. Each can’t abide the other. So as Joe and Alice get close, both parents, like modern-day Montagues and Capulets, warn their kid about the other kid; both warn the other kid to stay away.

I’m fine with all this. But when Joe finally argues back against his father, did he have to be so ... adult about it? There’s a vast unfairness in his father’s demands that would send any normal teenager into paroxysms of whining, but Joe responds as firmly and articulately as Gore Vidal arguing with William Buckley on “Firing Line.” He’s more adult than I’ve been in any argument in my life.

Eventually, after Alice’s final falling out with her father, she’s taken by the alien, and Joe and friends outmaneuver the U.S. military in the evacuated town to find her. Meanwhile, Deputy Lamb and Louis Dainard band together to find their kids. Then Abrams does two things I hate.

In the cab of the car, as Lamb and Dainard search the evacuated town for their kids and the alien monster, the two men reconcile. Dainard owns up and apologizes for missing that day of work; then the camera closes in on Lamb, who tells him, “It was an accident,” a thought which, a second later, he repeats with greater conviction. “It was an accident.” Just once in these types of movies, when one character tries to resolve a personal issue (a subplot) amidst a life-threatening, hugely momentous drama (the main plot), I’d like the other character to say, “Can you fucking concentrate? We’re trying to find our kids here! Before an alien monster kills them!”

That’s the first thing. Here’s the second thing.

The alien, it turns out, is subterranean, so Joe, smart lad, figures out he’s living underground, and finds a massive hole in the garage of a home near the cemetery where his mother is buried. He and Cary rappel down into it and find the alien working on alien technology, while its various kidnapped humans, including the Sheriff and Alice, hang upside-down like slabs of meat. Cary distracts the alien with an incendiary device, allowing Joe to scurry forth, release Alice, and breathlessly check to see if she’s alive. She is! She begins to breathe! Her eyelids flutter open! And she hugs him. (Awww.) And they have a heart-to-heart in the middle of the alien’s lair. (Huh?) With the alien seconds from returning, they unburden themselves emotionally, because surely this is the time and place to do it. Surely we would all do the same in their place. None of us would try to get ourselves and the others the hell out of there. It’s just the lair of an arachnid alien with superspeed and strength and intelligence who eats people. Unburden away.

To be honest I don’t remember much about the final 10 minutes of the movie. Joe and Alice begin to escape with the Sheriff and the others, but then the alien returns and picks up Joe and stares at him malevolently. And Joe, used to malevolent stares, calmly communicates with the alien. He uses his own tragedy, about losing his mother, to speak to the alien’s, about crashlanding on Earth and being incarcerated and experimented upon for 20 years. “We understand,” he says. The alien’s face, like a tiki god face, considers this and puts Joe down. With that issue finally resolved, the alien’s equipment begins to float away. The train wreck also released hundreds, maybe thousands of dimpled cubes, which twitch like Mexican jumping beans, and we’d seen one fly out of Joe’s bedroom and imbed itself in the town’s metallic water tower. Now these cubes all gravitate toward the water tower where they assemble themselves into a spaceship, which the alien climbs into. The spaceship is supermagnetized and all metals are pulled towards it, including cars, and including the locket, with his mother’s picture in it, that Joe has clung to throughout the movie. Joe holds onto this locket for a beat, two, three, before deciding, no, and letting it go, a symbolic gesture for letting the past go. Even though we’ve never gotten the sense that the past is weighing him down, and even though his mother has been dead only, what, five months now, still, it’s the end of the movie, and we need this meaningless symbolic gesture. And Abrams gives it to us. Which is odd, because he can’t even let go of his movie past.

And so the locket floats away. And so the spaceship floats away. And so the movie floats away.

—June 19, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard