Friday, January 10, 2014

Film Friday: Super 8 (2011)

I’ve never been a huge fan of The Goonies. The film is ok, but it feels lite to me, like Spielberg really didn’t put his all into it. Worse though, his penchant for ugly stereotypes really rubs me wrong in that one... the fat kid who can’t stop eating, the Asian kid who makes gadgets, the abusive jock. Blech. Anyway, Super 8 stinks. It’s like a low-rent version of The Goonies and the film is just a mess.
The Plot
Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, Super 8 is a mix of The Goonies and Close Encounters with a nasty streak. The film opens with a group of kids who are shooting a movie. The asthmatic kid wants the hot chick, but he’s forbidden from talking to her because her father skipped work, which resulted in the asthmatic kid’s mother taking his shift and thereby dying in a drunk driving incident which soured the relationship between their fathers. The fat kid also wants the dream girl and gets upset that the asthmatic kid stole her. The director kid is obnoxious. The dream girl’s father probably beats her. There are some other kids too, but honestly, neither I nor the film cared enough about them to remember who they are.
The kids go down to their local railroad station at night to make their film. As they are filming, they see a pickup truck drive up onto the tracks and strike an oncoming train head-on. This somehow derails the train right into the station but hurts none of the kids. Afterwards, the kids examine the wreckage and see little metal boxes everywhere.

Then the Air Force arrives. They refuse to talk to the local law enforcement or anyone else and they act like an invading force. They clean up the wreckage and then search the town for the notes of the man who drove the pickup track. He just happens to have been one of their scientists who told them they were evil and he now teaches at the local school.
Naturally, the Goonies investigate. As they do, the town starts to suffer mysterious attacks with equipment vanishing, electricity going out, and people getting killed... all from an invisible monster. The Air Force takes over, which upsets the asthmatic kid’s father, who just happens to be the new sheriff after the original sheriff is killed. But his attempts to stop the military come to naught as the military stages a false disaster and evacuates the town... but wait, the sheriff and the guy who “killed” his wife through no fault of his own sneak back into town to find their kids, who stayed for no reason I could make out. With all the main characters back in town, the alien suddenly appears, sucks up all the metal in town, including the necklace worn by the asthmatic kid with a picture of his dead mother in it, builds a spaceship out of it, and blasts off into space. Everyone cries. Roll the credits.
What This Film Does Wrong
This film is just really poorly thought out... kind of like Abrams’s prior projects. The motives are hopelessly muddled and everything is more complex than it needs to be. For example, rather than being a scientist on the run, the scientist needs to have first gotten a job in this town for some length of time... which raises the question of how he knew the train was coming or why he waited to do this or why the military waited to arrest him if he stole all the records he stole. The drunk driving death wasn’t just a drunk driving death, it was complicated by the whole “didn’t go to work” element that isn’t needed and which absolves the characters of real blame and creates confusion about why there is so much anger. For no reason I can see, the sheriff isn’t the sheriff, he’s the deputy until the sheriff is killed by accident.
Even worse, things like the motives get forgotten a few minutes after they are announced. For example, the asthmatic kid and the fat kid compete for the dream girl, and the fat kid seems upset, until he isn’t. The whole story they set up for the fat kid and the director kid actually just stops halfway through the film as the characters are essentially ushered off the screen and never reappear. Similarly, the two fathers hate each other, until they suddenly don’t... even though they do nothing that would trigger a reconciliation. Indeed, what causes their reconciliation is that the sheriff nonsensically demands the help of the drunk when he learns that their kids have stayed behind in the evacuated town... something his character would never do in real life.

The monster is a mess too. It’s invisible so you never really see it until the end. When it first appears (after escaping the train), it steals electrical equipment from around town in some manner that can’t be explained, but is suggested to involve magnetic power. It also kills several innocent bystanders. So it’s an evil monster right? Well, maybe. But near the end, we see film footage from the teacher who started everything and he claims it’s just a lonely monster trying to get home, i.e. ET, except that the big bad military guys have been making it angry... hulk angry... and we wouldn’t like it if we made it angry. A few minutes later, in a heavily manipulative scene, the monster sucks up the pendant worn by the asthmatic kid and suddenly we’re supposed to believe it’s a wonderful happy creature and we should feel sad about it leaving... ignore the bodies of the innocent people it killed. None of this is set up or consistent with the actions of the monster. In fact, we know nothing about the monster, except that it kills, until right before the moment we're supposed to suddenly fall in love with the monster.

To give you a further sense of how poorly thought out this film is, the film takes place in 1979 for no apparent reason whatsoever. The fact it happens in 1979 never once comes up or means anything. You might not even notice it, quite frankly.

Incidentally, the film is called Super 8 after the type of film the kids are using, and they do film the train wreck, but ultimately their film is irrelevant to the plot. There’s no discovery from the film and the fact they have it never moves the plot.
What this film feels like is someone looked at Spielberg’s old catalog and took out pieces of his films without grasping the substance of what gave them their appeal. Then he wrote a minimalist story around those ideas and filled in the gaps with motives with overly-complex backstories, motives that would be forgotten the moment the filler scene ended, and relationships that are set up but then dismissed as the film progresses. The end result is a film that’s watchable, but pointless. There is nothing at all creative or original in this film. There isn’t a character you care about. There isn’t a plot point that is at all exciting. And even the mystery of the monster isn’t enough to pique your curiosity.

In all honesty, this is how J.J. Abrams rolls. He’s all about false potential. He takes well-known images but abandons their substance. Then he puts them into uninteresting knock-off stories. The one time he didn’t, i.e. Lost, he set up false mysteries with no clue how to pay them off. Abrams is a pretentious Michael Bay.

Blech.

60 comments:

Kit said...

I think the 1979 thing and the title came from the fact that JJ Abrams loved Spielberg's sci-fi movies growing up and would shoot films on a Super 8 camera... in the 70s.

Yeah.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, It feels like an incompetently done homage.

Kit said...

Sad. The trailer looked kinda cool.

AndrewPrice said...

It did and I was somewhat hopeful. But it's just not a good movie. At no point does Abrams do anything right.

Kit said...

A confession to make: I enjoyed Cloverfield. A lot.

I apologize.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I thought Cloverfield was a great idea with a great story and some cool visuals here and there. But as a movie, I thought it was pretty unwatchable. Listening to it, fine, but not watching it.

Kit said...

Also, even in Close Encounters the military was not that bad. Yes, they faked a gas leak to cover up the land location but the colonel/general guy often seemed deferential and respectful towards the scientist, acknowledging that he knew more about this situation.

Kit said...

While I enjoyed Cloverfield. If someone came up to me and asked me if I wanted to watch it again in a theater I would probably say no. It was a thrilling ride but, at the end of the day, just not a re-watch.

Kit said...

Let me elaborate a bit. I enjoyed watching it in theaters a lot when I watched it. But I have neither seen it on TV nor on DVD. It was fun to experience (for me) and that was it.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That's one of the many areas where Abrams simply took the images but no substance from Spielberg. The military in Close Encounters lies, yes, but they are trying to protect people and control a situation that could easily get out of control. The military here are just cardboard thugs. They aren't evil per se, but they aren't good, they aren't interested in helping anyone, and they are ultimate the bad guys who anger, hold prisoner and torture the monster.

I'm not interested in re-watching Cloverfield either.

shawn said...

Andrew, it was my understanding that the boy's mother died in an accident at the mill/factory, covering for the girl's father. Hence the boy's father blames the girl's father because he called in sick/drunk.

Continuing my theme of contrariness started in the brainwashing thread, I have to say, I liked it. Abrams is known for big summer popcorn flicks and this certainly falls in that category. I think the children actors are great in their roles, the story moves at a decent pace, the movie captures the feel of the late 70s and the effects are good. I do agree that it feels like Abrams cribbed this movie from notes on the Goonies and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So it isn't exactly fresh. On the other hand, those movies are 20+ plus years old.

In the end, I would rate it better than the Goonies but less than Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Still, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Kit said...

I want to say that even in E.T. I want to say there was at least some logic to the military's actions.

In real life, if an alien landed on earth, he would be quarantined —ASAP. To protect people from infectious diseases that humans would have no immunity against.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, LOL! Feel free to be contrary. :)

We'll have to agree to disagree. I would have to rate it well below both Close Encounters and Goonies. Those were both complete films with strong characters. I didn't care much for Goonies because it was Spielberg being cute, but the story still felt compelling. I never felt that with Super8. Super8 felt to me as if someone had made this film under obligation and was just going through the motions.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Thanks for clarifying why the mother died. That's still convoluted and muddies up the idea of blaming the other father.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, In ET, the military was seen as nasty and scary because you were watching the film from the perspective of the kids who didn't understand what the military wanted or why they were there. They assumed the worst. But as you watch the film, you realize that they are simply trying to protect everyone and there is no nasty intent.

Kit said...

Andrew,

Good point, re E.T.

ScottDS said...

(Andrew, much of this comes from my e-mail but a couple of sentences are new!)

I think all your problems might be addressed here:

SUPER 8’s Secret Is A Terrible Script

My problem was this: I didn't give a shit about the monster! And I sure didn't sympathize with it. The stuff with the kids and the love story and their movie... good stuff. But there's kind of a disconnect by the time we get to the end.

And when I first heard about the movie: kids who capture an alien on their camera, I thought, "Cool! A kid version of Blow Up or The Conversation!" But we never get that. The kids' movie is almost an afterthought by the end.

And I NEVER believed for a second that one truck could derail a train... and then the driver of the truck lives! That was in the first 10 minutes and it totally ruined any sense of reality. You need to build up to such momentous events, not blow it in the opening act! (Supposedly, Spielberg asked Abrams to tone down the train crash, yet what we got was still so ridiculous big.)

And yeah, Abrams set it in the 70s because that's when he grew up and he wanted to capture that Spielberg/Amblin Entertainment vibe... and failed.

(To be fair, if I were a director, I'd probably want to make something similar set in the late 80s because Spielberg was/is a big influence on me... that whole suburban "backyard adventure" subgenre that he was so good at.)

Abrams was trying to capture a time and a place but it was still all so... modern. And it was shot like a modern movie... ironically, this was my problem with The Expendables... all these 80s action stars but it's shot like a 2010s movie... too much shaky-cam!

Abrams... he definitely is NOT the next Spielberg as the critics would have us believe. Hell, even Shyamalan deserved that title more at one point. Sure, he created some cool TV shows and people will still be unraveling Lost 50 years from now (though much of that credit goes to Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse).

Look at Abrams' films: a sequel to a movie based on a 60s TV series, a reboot of a 60s TV series, a Spielberg homage, and a sequel to a reboot of a 60s TV series! Ironically, he was writing more original work nearly 20 years ago. He actually wrote Regarding Henry and Taking Care of Business... but he also worked on Armageddon and wrote a (from what I've read) horrible draft of Superman before it turned into Superman Returns.

Kenn Christenson said...

Remember watching the film and thinking: What did the Air Force do to JJ Abrams? Like most, here, I just thought this was some sort of Spielberg "fan film."

tryanmax said...

All I have to say is that this film failed to deliver on any of it's promises:

The kids' film served no purpose.

Setting it in 1979 was completely irrelevant.

The alien/monster was not cool, original, or scary.

It was not Spielberg-esque.

Elle Fanning is not reminiscent of the girl-next-door I had a crush on as a kid.

KRS said...

I loved the concept of the movie. I like the idea of kids breaking curfew and discovering hostile aliens and resulting trainwreck in their world on every level. There is sooo much potential in this thing.

I was rooting for it getter better all the way through - sort of like watching a bad magician on the stage at your son's best friend's birthday party. But in the end, I had to admit that it was just a one big pile of poo on which JJ had smeared buttercream icing and called a wedding cake.

I think a big part of my rooting was motivated by Kyle Chandler being in exactly the kind of role God has made him to play. The well meaning guy who get's tommorrows newspaper today, the high school football coach trying to win games and care for his phenomenally wrong-headed players - it is very easy to imagine ourselves in his shoes whenever he plays a well-meaning guy struggling with near-insurmountable challenges.

If this movie had used the boys to bring him into the story as the sherrif (perhaps the kids actually cause the train derailment by accident) and having his sense of duty and loyalty to the town pushing him further into the investigation, overcoming Federal obstacles, it would have been much better. However, I would also have made the alien truly evil and not tortured into becoming a monster, which would justify the military's actions - that way, we've got good people working at cross purposes and our hero is wrong, but for all the right reasons. In the end, I'd have the sherrif play a critical role in the destruction of the monster.

In addition to rewriting other people's scripts, I think I should be running the NFL, too.

In the end, the whole thing is a trope-opolis of the 80's movies, like Goonies, where kids are wiser than the adults and are humanity's last hope. Bleccch.


Backthrow said...

Agreed on all points, plus I thought the kid filmmakers were too young for what they were doing. Sure, some kids are precocious, and lots of kids have made 8 mm and Super 8 movies while in their pre-teen years, during the pre-video era... but the kid director here (and a few of his young friends) seemed written as characters who would be in their mid-late teens, so that was throwing me off, in addition to all the other script flaws and excess.

Also, a nit-pick: they made a point of a character (I forget who... I saw the film over a year ago) having a Walkman, when, in 1979, we were a couple of years away from those being commercially available, certainly not in some little midwest town, anyway. It peeves me when they go out of their way to make something a period piece, then get details like that wrong, often intentionally ("Walkmans are nostalgic cool!" --Okay, then set your movie in 1982, idiot!).

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I had similar problems. I didn't care about the monster. I liked the idea of the kids filming the wreck and seeing the monster, etc., but then that turned out to be pointless to the film... and they didn't even see the monster. The rest felt like passing time. And yeah, that pickup truck would be crushed and off the rails with a dead driver as the train kept right on going.

The 1980s feel was totally wasted. First, if you don't know that's what he's going for, then you never notice. Indeed, outside the weak soundtrack and the fact the girl's father drives an 80s car and wears 70s shirts, there's no real 70s/80s feel.

Abrams has quickly proven to me that he's just not a great director. He's a pretensions Michael Bay who the critics like, and I'm pretty sure that in 10 years, no one will be revisiting his older catalog. Interestingly, this really highlights to me how special Spielberg was as a director. He made it look easy, but clearly it wasn't as easy as it seemed.

BTW, the link you post does a fantastic job of tearing this film apart at a fundamental level.

EricP said...

Best things about The Goonies: The Cyndi Lauper two-part mini-movie for "The Goonies 'R' Good Enough," also featuring a cameo fromwriter/producer Spielberg; John Matuszak, Robert Davi and Joey Pants

Best thing about Super 8: Works just as effectively as Melatonin if I can't fall asleep.

AndrewPrice said...

Kenn, "Fan film" is a good way to put it. It doesn't feel like a film maker with a vision so much as someone who wanted to reference as many Spielberg films as possible in one way or another.

And yeah, I have no idea why the Air Force is predicted as such absolute sh*ts in this film. To me, that's injecting a really modern trope into a film where it shouldn't have been.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, LOL! Nice list! I agree on all points! :)

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, Agreed! I wanted to like this film so much and I was prepared to forgive it a lot, but it just never got any better.

I think the film mistook "convoluted backstory" for plot and it never really had a firm grasp on how the characters are supposed to relate to each other... they just interacted, but never really related. Thus, for example, the kid and his father keep running into each other, but never really shared a moment and never came together to drive the plot together.

I think your idea would have been a lot of better. Or even just having the train derail by accident (loose rail) and the kids think they caused it... something to get the kids needing the help of the sheriff, who then needs to balance his concern for the kids and knowing what is really going on, against the military. I also think the aliens should have been evil to justify the military's behavior, or the military needs to be a lot nicer and the alien should have been goofier. As it was, it was kind of none of the above.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, I thought the whole "it's 1979!" thing was poorly handled.

In terms of the kids and the film, I also had the sense that they were doing a lot more than kids of their age would have done. We made films in high school and nobody was as thorough or well-costumed as these kids.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, I totally associate Cindi Lauper with Goonies!

LOL! Nice use for Super 8.

tryanmax said...

EricP, Found it!

tryanmax said...

My God, the 80s were weird. Part 2

T-Rav said...

Is it weird that I also disliked The Goonies but kinda liked this movie?

I get most of the problems you have with the story but they didn't really bother me while watching, because I enjoyed the premise. Kids trying to make an amateur movie, suddenly getting caught up in a much bigger event, etc etc. And I was kinda impressed by the detailed work they were doing trying to make the movie, too. They made it seem fun.

On the other hand, I fully agree that Abrams making the monster all misunderstood and victimized and just wanting to go home, after it killed all those people, is....well, glaring, to say the least. In the end, it's certainly not the worst movie I've ever seen, and I found most of it fairly enjoyable, but it's definitely trademark Abrams: Impressive concept, rapidly growing plot holes, desperate emotional appeals in the finale to distract from said plot holes. I can't remember if there was lens flare or not, but I assume there was.

Kit said...

I'm gathering from both Andrew's review and the one Scott linked to that JJ Abrams decided to do a movie that was Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. combined? And it turned out crap?

Better story? Have two aliens. One the evil killer, the other the good and kind one.

ScottDS said...

Andrew, this reminds me, you need to finally review Star Trek Into Darkness one of these days.

It's gonna be a bloodbath! ;-)

Koshcat said...

I find it interesting that your description makes the film actually sound more interesting than it was.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, In hindsight, the 80s were a really strange era. Oddly, they seemed pretty conservative and normal at the time.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, That's a great description of Abrams. That's exactly what his films are -- massive potential, growing problems, desperate emotional appeal at the end.

In terms of this movie being the worst ever, it's definitely not that. It's watchable. I just found it really dull and I never cared about anything that happened. But I didn't hate it... I just didn't like it.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That's exactly what it feels like. It feels like he took various broad strokes from several Spielberg films and then put them all into the same movie and thought that would be enough.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'm working on it! LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, LOL! Bravo! :)

Critch said...

I absolutely hate aliens that are telekinetic, psychic, shape shifters, supernatural etc...that's why I liked Alien, it was just a badass bug...The Super 8 alien looked like a spider, really? Get original. Super 8 just wasn't a good movie...nothing worked right and i get tired of movies where these kids are so much smarter than the adults...it started with The Blob, which wasn't a bad movie. Also, as a 30 year veteran of the USAF, they had the uniforms all wrong..the USAF never wore green berets..and the blue berets the skycops do wear are a darker blue...

Tennessee Jed said...

I am proud I instinctively ignored this one. Not surprised by your review. I'd say you saved me from wasting time with this one. Probably, not, but now there is at least zero chance I could start watching it by mistake.

Tennessee Jed said...

It would be hard to beat the famous F.A.Q. review of Star Trek Into Darkness review, though.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'm happy to provide you with a service that might have worked except you didn't need it! Service providers like that are the ones who get rich in the modern economy. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, What's funny is that I have no knowledge of historic Air Force uniforms, but I knew right away that the uniforms were fake. They just didn't look like anything the Air Force ever wore.

EricP said...

>>My God, the 80s were weird. >>

Cyndi Lauper's latching onto the mid-80s WWF craze certainly didn't help make things any more normal, either. I'd blame (the) MTV, but like Andrew said, all seemed pretty blase while we took our day by day. If nothing else, though, we were discerning enough to know the World Wrestling Federation and World Wildlife Fund could co-exist just fine with the same acronym.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, That is one of the more bizarre copyright issues ever. Is there really a human alive who would be confused between the World Wildlife Fund and the World Wrestling Federation?

Yeah, the 80s were strange because it all seemed so normal at the time. In fact, after the 1970s, it seemed like everything was very traditional again... very conservative. Had no idea how weird the decade really was until later.

Koshcat said...

Hey! Back off, the '80's were awesome! And stay off my lawn!

Rustbelt said...

Okay, I just did some rummaging on Wikipedia. On the subject of 'Cloverfield,' J.J. Abrams claims the creature-feature was inspired by Godzilla toys he saw in Japan, but wanted something more "intense and insane." The guys he hired to design that creature stated that Cloverfield wouldn't have a personality (like Godzilla or King Kong), but would be an entity or event.

So...Abrams was trying to one-up Godzilla with a creature that had no personality. (As Dr, Evil) Riiiiiiiiiight...

(In the interests of full disclosure, I've seen 'Colverfield' due to my undying hatred of shaky-cam. I haven't seem this film, either. AMEN!)

Also...Kit and Andrew, while it's clear that Abrams is ripping off Spielberg in 'Super 8,' think about this: the alien's shape is undetermined most of the time, it kills a lot of people in order to hide, and steals parts to build its own spaceship. Remind you of anything?! Abrams, you hack! Stick to stealing from one director/genre at a time!

And, Andrew, yes, this DOES make me better appreciate Spielberg's films. (Well, his better ones, at least.) I remember posting a few months ago how, while watching 'Jaws' and trying to keep it synched with the Rifftrax commentary, I noticed how the camera was always moving and building the community through visuals, not forced exposition. Plus, the characters, even the ones you weren't supposed to like, all had clear and understandable motivations.

Rustbelt said...

Pardon my grammar. That should read, "I HAVEN'T seen 'Cloverfield' due to my undying hatred of shaky-cam."

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat,

Don't get me wrong, I love the 80s. They were a great time to grow up. The country was prosperous and unified. The music was awesome. The films were fun. We didn't have to worry about terrorism... unless you thought the Russians were going to nuke us. We kicked ass in everything. There was optimism everywhere. We didn't have to worry about political correctness.

Those were great times in all honesty. I loved growing up then.

But in hindsight, a lot of the things we thought were normal/traditional/conservative turned out to be pretty wild. Look at the fashions, the hair, the drug use (coke), the propensity to use really stupid slang... radical, like totally. It was a very strange decade in hindsight compared to how it seemed at the time.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, So...Abrams was trying to one-up Godzilla with a creature that had no personality. Yikes. Somehow, that perfectly describes all of his movies.

If you don't like the shakycam, then don't see Cloverfield. I've never seen a film that bad in terms of the use of the shakycam. There are whole scenes where the camera is literally bouncing around so badly that you'll want to vomit. "South Park" even parodied it, it was so bad.

On Spielberg, I've really come to appreciate his work way more than I did growing up. Yes, I liked his films, but they struck me as pretty standard, i.e. what you would expect from a film. But in hindsight, I was spoiled growing up in that area and my understanding of what films should be was way above average. Indeed, while it seemed that he was just shooting average films, the truth is that the average is far, far lower than what he achieved. He really is a special director.

And what's ironic about that is that hacks like Abrams even have Spielberg's films as a model to steal from and yet they can't match them. That really speaks volumes to Spielberg's ability to craft a total film.

Critch said...

The 70s were great for movies, but so were the 80s,,,I still love 80s new Wave...can't help it..it was a fun time.

djskit said...

Dear lord, this man is now in charge of Star Wars (sound of gun clicking).

The FAQ article of STITD is priceless.

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, Agreed! :D

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, Yeah... it's gonna suck.

Outlaw13 said...

To see how to handle an invisible monster that is killing/destroying things see this Jonny Quest episode...http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0837348/

It's sad when a cartoon from the 60's is better than a feature length, big budget movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, True. But then, Jonny Quest was a top notch cartoon. :-)

ScottDS said...

Eric -

If nothing else, though, we were discerning enough to know the World Wrestling Federation and World Wildlife Fund could co-exist just fine with the same acronym.

That reminds me of one of my favorite Simpsons gags when Homer sees an ad for The National Ringworm Association, aka "The Other NRA"!

Outlaw13 said...

Andrew, Jonny Quest was awesome right up until they tried to "update" him in the 80's.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, Isn't that the truth. I saw some of the 1980s versions first and was left very unimpressed. Then I got a chance to see the 1960s versions and I was blown away. Everything about the 1960s versions is fantastic. I wish there were a lot more of them!

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