I was having a conversation about Super 8 (2011, directed by J.J. Abrams) last night with a friend of mine who didn't much like it. She gave as one of her reasons the fact that the story of the kids who are making a movie when a monster escapes in their town has no connection whatsoever to the story of the monster itself. She has a point. The kids in this film have no agency of their own. The story--much as it pretends otherwise--is NOT about them. They are inconsequential to what happens in the movie. For the most part, they're a point of view rather than actual protagonists, and their actions ultimately do not direct the course of the movie at all. My friend also complained that J. J. Abrams has the dream job of coming up with monsters and the Smoke Monster in Lost, the monster in Cloverfield, and THIS monster are the best he can come up with? Seriously? As I say, she didn't like this movie, but I kinda do, in spite of all of this.
There are two stories going on here, one is a stock government covering up the arrival of an alien sort of thing, the other is about a bunch of kids discovering movies. This second story, which OUGHT to be the first story, is the one that sucks the viewer into the movie at the outset. This story follows Joe Lamb, who has just lost his mother to an industrial accident. His dad, a Deputy Sheriff, doesn't know how to relate to Joe. Joe's best friend is Charles, a heavy-set kid who's passionate about movies to the point of making one himself. He's wrangled all of his friends into making a zombie film to be submitted to a local film festival. One of the kids Charles has recruited is Alice Dainard, whose dad has had run-ins with Deputy Lamb in the past. Joe develops a relationship with Alice, much to the grief of both of their respective fathers. This is a movie that feeds on nostalgia for the monster movies of the late seventies and early eighties. There's an infectious "Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland let's put on a show!" quality to this half of the movie and if the movie had lopped off the whole monster movie part of the enterprise and just followed these kids around as they made their movie, it would have been an awesome movie, though not without flaws.
By my lights, Charles should be the center of the movie, not Joe. He's a MUCH more interesting character. For that matter, apart from Joe, Charles, and Alice, the rest of their friends are pretty much interchangeable, as if they were stillborn in the script and given to child actors without the skill to bring them to life. Still, they're all pretty appealing even if they're a gaggle of white faces and if Alice is the smurfette. This is a boy's movie, unfortunately, but it's not an egregious one. One thing this film gets spot on is its portrait of suburbia circa 1979. This has an amazing sense of place, which goes a long way toward easing the movie into its less credible passages.
Film is the bridge between the two halves of the movie, as the kids end up shooting the train crash that starts the other story in motion. The film they shoot would be an excellent MacGuffin in another movie, but it ends up wasted here, almost an afterthought, which is odd given that film gives the movie its title.
I don't care much for the monster movie element of this film, which is as familiar a story as they come, dating back to It Came from Outer Space. This part of the movie is structured along the lines of classic, slowly revealed monster movies of the past: it teases the audiences with glimpses before rolling out better and better views of the monster. At least, that's how it's supposed to go. I don't thing Super 8 really trusts its monster because even at the end of the film, the audience never gets a really good look at it. It's insectile, I think, though with a face that looks just like the face of Parallax in Green Lantern. My friend is absolutely right about this element of the movie. There's no love in the design of the monster here. It's purely perfunctory, and the end result is an uninspired creature who the film doesn't even deign to show. There's a lot of eye-drugging destruction in this movie, but it's sound and fury signifying nothing. The alien leaves. There are no repercussions for anyone. Well, except maybe the villainous National Security guys, who get their comeuppance in audience-pleasing revenge.
But, as I say, I do kind of like this film. Parts of it, anyway. I like Kyle Chandler, who plays Joe's dad, even though the movie fails to forge the requisite connection between the two characters. And I love Elle Fanning, who appears to be every bit as gifted an actress as her older sister, Dakota, only with out that sense of the uncanny about her. And it saves the best for last. It's credit cookie may well be the reason to see the movie, in which we see the end product of the kids' moviemaking efforts, a hilarious zombie movie that has so much charm that it all but obliterates the unsatisfying fantasy of destruction that ends the movie proper.