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Super 8

Abrams Pays Homage to Spielberg

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Super 8, a 70s-set, coming-of-age/science-fiction/action/horror mash-up, is the third film from writer-producer-director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek (2009), Mission: Impossible III), who attempts to pay homage to Steven Spielberg’s (the film’s producer) sci-fi and action genres legacy,but fails to create an emotionally or dramatically satisfying film outside of that homage.

By his own admission, Abrams combined two storylines — a coming-of-age story and an alien-on-the-loose story — because he felt that neither storyline alone could sustain a 90-minute film. He may be right, but unfortunately he failed to meld the two into a cohesive, coherent, emotionally satisfying whole.

Abrams opens Super 8 on a somber, melancholic note, as a manual worker silently changes a safety sign indicating the number of days between industrial accidents at a factory in Lillian, Ohio.

In one, offscreen moment, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has lost his mother and his father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler, underused in an underwritten role), a deputy sheriff, has lost his wife. The cold, desolate winter gives way, four months later, to the end of the school year. Still grieving, Joe throws himself into helping his effusive best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), with a zombie flick that Charles hopes to enter in a regional Super 8 contest. Charles convinces Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), two years older than Joe and Charles, and a seemingly unobtainable beauty, to act in their film.

Jackson, understandably perplexed with his son’s obsessions, attempts (and fails) to send him away for the summer to a six-week baseball camp. The painful disconnect between Joe and his father provides Super 8 with a key subplot defined by Jackson’s inability to express or share his grief with his son. Jackson also objects to Alice’s presence in his son’s life either as a friend or potential girlfriend, due to her father’s connection to his wife’s death four months earlier. Abrams leaves the nature of that connection between Louis (Ron Eldard) and the death of Joe’s mother undefined until a key moment later in the film (and we’ll do that here).

Ultra-eager to add production value to his film, Charles convinces Joe, Alice, and their friends, Cary (Ryan Lee), the group’s “explosives expert,” leading man Martin (Gabriel Basso), and Preston (Zach Mills), to shoot their film at a closed train depot. There, they get front-row seats for a spectacular crash of a U.S. Air Force-operated train, a crash Abrams milks for the better part of seven or eight minutes.

The train’s super-secret cargo escapes into the countryside. Almost immediately, an Air Force colonel, Nelec (Noah Emmerich), appears and leads a heavy military presence into the town. While Jackson becomes suspicious of Nelec’s motives, several people, including the sheriff, disappear. Joe, gradually taking over the alpha male spot in the group from Charles, begins an investigation of his own, leading to a climactic, cathartic, convergence of the two major storylines.

That convergence, predicated on mainstream storytelling norms (reunion, reconciliation, redemption, etc.), unfortunately occurs without Abrams properly laying the groundwork for it to feel emotionally convincing rather than cheaply manipulative. It also caps a series of implausibilities that begin with the unlikeliest of train crash survivors warning the central characters not to speak about what they’ve witnessed. Later, a logic leap takes Joe, Alice, Charles, and the others to an exposition-laden treasure trove.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong or objectionable about homage. In practice, however, homage-obsessed filmmakers often trade in their own unique voice (assuming, of course, they have one) for the older, more celebrated filmmaker they are paying tribute. But too much homage, like too much nostalgia, can turn into the proverbial image of the snake eating its own tail. There’s no clearer example of that problem than Super 8.