SPOILER ALERT! – MY WHOLE REVIEW IS ONE BIG SPOILER, SO READ WITH CAUTION!!!!!
Oops…I think even my tongue-in-cheek title is a spoiler of sorts…sorry. Yes, folks, we have an alien on the premises.
In 1958, an advanced alien life form crash-lands on Earth and is quickly seized by the American government. Experimented on, abused and misunderstood, the creature is kept under lock and key for over twenty years where it learns to hate its human captors and wishes to destroy them…by munching on them occasionally and wrecking all kinds of stuff.
In 1979, while in transport to god knows where, one of the scientists who sympathized with the abused alien derails the train in a small Ohio town. On the lam, the alien builds a subterranean bunker under a cemetery where when not stealing microwaves, TVs and car engines to build a ship to get home, it kidnaps people and hangs them suspended from the ceiling of its lair. It’s not unlike the lair of a serial killer, a psychopathic cannibal or some human monster out of a Rob Zombie film. And just like all movie serial killers, this alien has a tragic back story of suffering abuse and torture before turning malevolent. Naturally it eats its victims whenever it gets a hankering for some munchies.
When a scrappy kid (Joel Courtney) uncovers the lair in search of the missing girl he has a crush on (Elle Fanning), he makes a connection with the alien when it goes to eat him. You see, the alien makes a psychic connection just by touching people and essentially turns all those it abducts into little Patty Hearsts full of sympathy for the devil. Through this instant and convenient connection, the kid convinces the alien to go home. But of course, the kid’s mom died at the beginning of the film as part of the actual main storyline within which this off-putting alien tale exists. Thus he tells the alien upon his own sudden internal revelation, “Bad things happen. But you can keep living. You can go home now.”
Ah, yes, please, Mr. Alien, stop eating the people in my town and just get on outta here. Go free. We understand you were abused. It’s okay you killed so many people and tried to eat me. Just go home and we’ll pretend nothing happened. But I’ll learn to let go. And you’ll learn to go home. And we’ll all have a good cry. And my dad will hug me for the first time. And my girlfriend’s dad will hug her. And our dads (who had a grudge) will forgive each other. And all will be well. But, dang…I didn’t even get to kiss the girl. Though we did have a nice hug. What the hell, Mr. Alien? LAME.
Stupid ending aside, the first 3/4ths of J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is a rock-solid throw-back piece of Amblin entertainment. He nails the old-fashioned Spielberg suspense build. Show us a little bit piece by piece. Build a mystery. Build characters we care about. Then wreak havoc. The story is built around a buncha likable kids filming a zombie movie – stay tuned during the credits; their actual super 8 film is MINT. The kid actors assembled are great, especially Joel Courtney who displays just enough awkward wide-eyed/sad-eyed innocence to come across as an authentically nice kid you want to root for. Meanwhile Elle Fanning, of the preternaturally creepy Fanning Clan, is a surprisingly charming stunner. She comes across as a young Naomi Watts, able to turn on the tears and emotion at the flip of a switch in her portrayal of a troubled girl using acting as a way to escape her home life. The adult counterparts aren’t nearly as good, but that amounts to minor quibble along with Abrams’ annoying obsession with using lens flares to foreshadow bad things or just for the hell of it because he really loves lens flares.
For the most part I enjoyed what Abrams was throwing down. I understood his intent and desire to return to a more innocent style of kid-centric storytelling full of equal parts suspense, humor and life lessons. And he pulled it off…until that ending. It was like some over-the-top pastiche to an early 80’s Spielberg film where everyone (murderous malevolent alien included) found closure. I almost expected to see Oprah standing there waving goodbye as the spaceship took off, smug and content with the lame pop-psychology that cured every characters’ ills. Abrams would’ve been better off having come up with more clever and original way to find triumph for the kids while delivering the just desserts to the abusive government and the murderous man-eating alien monster they created. At least the poor kid shoulda got to kiss the girl! I mean, c’mon, man!
Bottom line: Super 8 is a swell, old-fashioned, summer popcorn flick that works for the most part despite the standard Abrams’ quirks and a weak ending. The full on adoption of ET-era Steven Spielberg narrative design is on the surface-level a smart idea, but perhaps not when below the surface you essentially have turned ET into a serial killer. Ultimately while the Spielberg slow-build approach to suspense and character development is a welcome return…the screeching sentimentality is not.
Written by David H. Schleicher