My review of SUPER 8 will join the AICN chorus on Friday, when we can freely discuss spoilers. Without tipping my hand too much, I'm fascinated by what Abrams has attempted here, but I'm not interested in discussing it as a mystery box.
As far as spoiler-free reviews go, however, you're not going to find one more lucid than what Fatboy Roberts offers up below. I don't agree with everything he says below (lay off 1941 and TEMPLE OF DOOM, sir!), but he makes some very cogent points about Abrams's storytelling. Always a pleasure to post a new review from our pal up in Portland...
It is well known at this point that JJ Abrams makes movies to be mystery boxes. He finds them to be the perfect containers of magic things, and movies are the most potent kind of magic he knows.
JJ Abrams once told the story of his personal mystery box at a TED conference: It was a magic kit, a cardboard package with a bright yellow sticker on it, decorated in question marks and rabbits, purchased from a novelty store. He’s owned it for over 30 years, and he’s never opened it. He doesn’t want to ruin the magic inside.
It is an image that evokes nostalgia all by itself; a beam of sunlight shot through a windowpane, dust dancing through the golden light, shining on that stickered cardboard, reflecting off the lenses of his glasses, magnifying the excitement in JJ’s eyes. The boy gets older, the frames change shape, the hair recedes, but the eyes stay excited, the light stays golden, and the box stays unopened. The magic is preserved.
Of the films in Abrams’ filmography, "Super 8" is the one that most closely resembles that box. The box is built out of a thick latticework of nostalgic imagery from the late 70’s/early 80’s. It’s sides are made with the kitbashed remains of genre classics from that era. But while the film nakedly strains to mix together the best parts of "E.T." and "The Goonies," the resultant film ends up feeling more like an undercooked blend of "The Monster Squad" and "1941." JJ is openly chasing the ghost of young Spielberg, but the specter he's captured is the one who thought Willie Scott was a good idea, who wasted John Belushi in a WWII comedy.
The premise is as beautiful as "Super 8's" cinematography, an idea so bright it causes at least 25% of the movie's lens flares by itself: A group of film-crazy middle-school nerds (and the sad-but-pretty girl they’ve roped into this) are making a zombie movie for an 8mm film contest. While shooting at a train station one night, a cataclysmic wreck occurs, unleashing a destructive government secret into a small Ohio town.
The charm in that premise evaporates within 20 minutes of the lid being lifted on "Super 8’s" mystery box, and bad soap opera and hollow characterization starts oxidizing the remaining magic shortly thereafter. None of the child actors are bad, necessarily, but there’s nothing to any of them but shrill crosstalk and constant requests for everyone else but them to shut up; requests that are repeated so often they not only constitute about 40% of the children’s dialog, but they become a mantra to lob back at the screen.
The two child leads, Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb and Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard, sometimes rise above this prepubescent cacophony and provide the film with warm, honest portrayals of children fumbling through their respective broken homes. Their single parents, Deputy Sherriff Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) and town drunk Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) take turns using their children as weapons with which to hurt the other in the wake of a shared tragedy.
In the meantime, a secret Air Force group has essentially quarantined the town while hunting for their cargo, causing almost as much turmoil as whatever got free of that train, leading to mass disappearances and inexplicable technological anomalies.
These stories do not intertwine and strengthen each other like good cinematic magic tricks do. "Super 8" holds together with all the strengh of still-wet model glue. It is a collection of pretty explosions smashing through the side of the frame, followed by annoying characters saying unfunny things with terrible timing. It has all the tone of a smashed piano. It is a strenuous bout of nostalgic over-exercise that can’t hold onto a sense of awe for longer than 2 seconds at a time thanks to the sheets of sweat slicking up JJ’s previously sure grip.
In fact, the most surprising thing about "Super 8" isn’t the reveal of what escaped the train, and why it does the things it does. The biggest surprise is that there is no sense of fun here at all. Moments that should be rousing, like Deputy Lamb’s escape from an Air Force trap, just sort of loudly happen, with no real impact. And most damaging to what Abrams is trying to do, none of the moments that go for the heartstrings (Joe’s standing up to his father, His father’s reconciliation with Louis) manage to strike a true note.
I didn’t think that Super 8 would end up containing less honest emotion than the first 5 minutes of "Star Trek," or less real tension than anything in "Mission Impossible III," but that’s what happened here. This film proves JJ was right to never open his mystery box, because it turns out there’s just a bunch of gaudy, loud junk rattling around in there. Super 8 is a pretty, ornate container built to hold only the suggestion of actual content.