“Super 8” tries to soar, but falls short

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Courtesy of Sony Pictures


The disaster-monster movie, with all of its trappings – the threat of destruction of humanity, the relationships forged through terror and hardship, the desperate and often sinister involvement of the government – has become a postmodern film industry standard, winning box offices and audiences everywhere.


Taken at face value, it’s pretty clear why this is the case.  Films like director J.J. Abrams’ newest film, “Super 8”, feature tense, dramatic storylines with likeable protagonists and brow-furrowing plot twists.  Perhaps more noticeably, these films also boast spectacular cinematic eye-candy that keep an audience gaping and gasping and wanting more (“Super 8”’s pivotal train wreck, for instance, is enough to make even Michael Bay, the master of gratuitous explosions himself, turn pink with jealousy).

Under the surface, though, monster films also reflect the anxieties and schisms of society, quietly commenting on everything from political instability to corruption to those terrors that simmer in the back of our minds every day: the fears that life might, one day, rapidly unravel – leaving us flailing to regain control.

What writer/director J.J. Abrams does brilliantly is rely on experience with his beloved TV series “Lost” and 2008’s divisive “Cloverfield” to craft a tale that’s well-paced and convincingly written while still being able to contemplate our centuries-old obsession with the “monster” – in all aspects of the term

Here’s the twist, though – when you stop waxing lyrical about what it all means, “Super 8” is as conventional as anything else you’ve seen.

The film deals with the father-son duo of Jackson and Joe Lamb (played by Kyle Chandler – who channels his “stern father” from all those years on Friday Night Lights – and impressive newcomer Joel Courtney) who separately, but simultaneously unravel the secrets of a deeply guarded military program.

Jackson Lamb is an ambitious Sherriff’s deputy who is forced into leading the department as military chaos descends on his small town, while his son Joe hangs out with a “Stand By Me”-esque crew of kids (some precocious, like the bossy wannabe film auteur Charlie, and others less so) who slowly discover the story behind “Super 8”’s gargantuan, pissed-off monster.

There are good – even great – performances abound here.  The younger roles steal the show, such as Courtney’s Joe Lamb (a picture-perfect blend of naivete and sheer courage) and especially Elle Fanning as a spectacular Alice Dainard, who shines as the complicated, initially standoffish daughter of an alcoholic father.

And Abrams’ direction is strong as well.  “Super 8” feels like a film that’s about characters first, as opposed to other disaster films that force shallow caricatures of people into obscenely disastrous scenarios.  The cinematography is balanced and purposeful and doesn’t get obsessed with highlighting special CG effects.

With all these positive aspects, one might reasonably expect that “Super 8” comes highly recommended.  Yet as the final scenes unfold, the film becomes, somehow, less than the sum of it’s parts.

The climax is, well, anti-climactic – right when the going seems to get good, the movie withers, leaving a half-hearted attempt at wrapping things up.  The romance in the film feels like a cliche that you’ve seen in every other disaster film made.  And I believe I might have actually muttered “This can’t be the ending” when the conclusion came.

After an auspicious start, “Super 8” becomes the same kind of movie it seemed not to be – a sappy monster movie that, sadly, fails its ambitious themes and metaphors and characterizations.

It’s a sort of paradox, then: a well-directed, largely well-acted, potentially complex, humanistic film that somehow, somewhere, with the help of a few awful choices, falls flat and ends up being some sort of extended homage to the disaster-monster films of the past.