Being a kid is weird. It’s very frustrating and confusing a lot of the time, probably most of the time. You’re pretty much powerless over your life, and yet you’ve got a burgeoning emotional framework with which to react to it, so you’re put in this position of constantly having to just deal with it dot GIF. And then sometimes you play tetherball or whatever. Of course, this is all speculative, because as an adult it is virtually impossible to genuinely remember what it was like to be a kid. You might think you remember, but I bet your memory would not stand up in court. Your memory probably wouldn’t even stand up in Kids Court. Culturally, this makes being a kid even weirder. Because there are lots of books and movies and TV shows and radio plays and avant garde black box performance art pieces (just kidding now) that deal with the experience of being a child, and all of them are made by adults. Adults with these same shoddy, garbage memories that we’ve just been talking about. So all of our pop cultural (mis)interpretations of being a child get shot through this weird filter of nostalgia and half-remembered sensations, combined with the general dramatic exaggeration that is applied to these projects in the first place, and so now children become innocent ciphers of joy and wonder and imagination and terror and love and whatever. It’s inaccurate, but until we start letting children make movies, it’s the best we can do, and also I genuinely hope we never start letting children make movies. The best we can hope for, then, when it comes to movies about childhood is something that can’t possibly get it right, but hopefully resembles something that seems right. And if that were the sole criteria on which to base a movie, J.J. Abrams’s Super 8 would be a very good movie! The kids were good. Very kids. Sure, there was lots of emotional short-hand and some unlikely heroics, but for the most part they were fun to watch, seemed to have pretty kid-like inter-kid relationships, and fun banter that was neither overly-precocious nor overly-precious.
It was the rest of the movie that made it mediocre and unremarkable. Let’s talk about that stuff!
Super 8 is about a group of nerdy friends in small-town Ohio in 1979 who love making homemade zombie movies and setting off firecrackers. One night, while filming a scene for their movie, they witness a horrible train crash caused by their science teacher. The next thing you know, the town is overrun by military police and also by mysterious occurrences. All the dogs are running away! People keep disappearing! The lights are flickering on and off! Rubik’s cubes! Meanwhile, the child detectives are on the case. Naturally, they figure out all the things that no one else could figure out, like why the train crashed, what was on the train, where what was on the train is hiding now, what the what that was on the train wants to accomplish, what will happen if that happens, and all the other mysteries. Kids achieve the nearly impossible darndest things! Oh, also the main kid, Joe, has no mom and is in love with Elle Fanning and his dad is Kyle Chandler who is also a police deputy, but you already know all this, because this is the Videogum Movie Club and we all saw this movie together.
The beginning of the movie is really kind of perfect. The economy of story-telling in the opening scenes is just very economical, very story-telling. The “it’s been this many days since an accident” sign at the steel mill followed by the wake and the unexplained hatred of the two fathers is great. The juxtaposition of the chubby kid’s large and noisy family with Joe’s return home to an empty, dinnerless house is effective (and affective)! Then there is the train sequence, which is big and fun and exciting although also a little hilarious, because whoa, that is SOME train crash. But it is in the aftermath of this mysterious and compelling disaster that things really start to fall apart. Actually, no, wait, sorry, things fall apart from the very beginning for one very simple reason: this movie is set in 1979 for absolutely no reason.
If J.J. Abrams wanted to make a love letter to Steven Spielberg that’s fine but he didn’t need to backdate it. E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and Jaws) were all great movies, and J.J. Abrams was very careful to match their aesthetic. Except that those movies were made for contemporary audiences. Things looked like that in those movies because things were like that. Reese’s Pieces were not a wink-wink nostalgic throwback in E.T. they were straight up product placement for a new candy (same with the Speak and Spell). That doesn’t mean Super 8 has to be set in 2011, but if it is 1979 then surely there is some kind of contextualized reason? Surely the story depends on this? Nope! Not even a little. There is one moment where the TV is on in the background and a news anchor makes some mention of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, but the monster in the movie is not a nuclear holocaust nightmare monster. He’s from outer-space. J.J. Abrams clearly just thought the cars and flared jeans looked cooler. Also: Walk-Man jokes!
The counter-argument, I’m sure, is that setting the movie in 1979 allowed them to strip the characters of our modern technologies. No one has cell phones to lose signals in a moment of panic. And the movie is called Super 8, after all. The children must wait three days for the film to be developed, if you can even believe it. The problem is that this is not a compelling enough reason. Surely the stakes of a terrifying space spider who kidnaps humans and destroys junkyards are high enough to sustain the complications of modern technology. The homage to the old way of movie-making is cute, but it’s kind of like how journalists are always writing articles about kidnapped journalists. You know we’re not all journalists, right? We kind of don’t care, no offense! These self-reflective things are just never as important to regular people as they are to the members of the industry that is doing the self-reflecting and clearly things they’re the most important. (It is also worth noting that the titular film strip around which this movie’s entire aesthetic essence is based does not even really show very much and does not end up being that important to the plot. And it is also worth nothing that it’s very weird to make a movie that supposedly worships old-timey children’s film cameras that is filled with so much CGI and lens-flares.)
I’m not even going to get into how wasted Kyle Chandler is, but let’s just say he was VERY wasted.
Of course, if J.J. Abrams’s unjustified aesthetic choices were an homage to Steven Spielberg’s early career, then his ridiculously convenient, emotionally-manipulative, and deeply unsatisfying narrative ending is an homage to Steven Spielberg’s later career. Ugh! I’m not saying that a motherless child can’t teach a space alien about the power of hope, or whatever, but maybe a motherless child can’t teach a space alien that EATS HUMANS FOR SNACKS about the power of hope. That is like if a bag of pizza-flavored Combos started crying as it stared you in the face and said “bad things can happen.” Shut up, Combos, I’m hungry! It’s also very weird that all the space alien needed to do in the end was summon all of the magic Rubik’s Cubes to float their way up to the water tower and then he could make his ship and leave. OK, fair enough, why didn’t he just do that in the first place? What was the whole rest of the movie about if that was always an option? The whole thing was like Lost 2. You’ve got an exciting crash, a smoke monster in the trees, a somewhat questionable gunfight, and then crushing disappointment. (Although, to be fair, while a lot of people found the ending of Lost to be frustratingly unsatisfying, I thought it was way better than the ending of Super 8.) Come on, J.J. Abrams! You are not supposed to bite off more than you can chew. Even Augustus Gloop is looking at you and being like, Dude!
It’s not that Super 8 is a bad movie, because it’s not. It’s fine! But it’s definitely no E.T. or Close Encounters. It’s not any of the movies that J.J. Abrams clearly found thrilling and inspiring as a child and made him want to get into movies. Which is too bad. It would be nice to have a movie like that. We could definitely use one. But we won’t get that until people stop constantly trying to recapture what was and start trying to capture what is. These guys know what I’m talking about:
Now Oasis, there is a group of artists who knew what it meant to stop trying to recreate the past and just focus on the now. That’s why they are still the most relevant band ever and so influential and very important. The future of music. A bunch of real Buzz Lightyears. Just kidding.