SPOILERS AHOY! If you do not want to read spoilers, skip this review in its entirely and just read the last paragraph where I sum up whether the movie was poop or worth seeing.
Super 8 is one of those movies that gets worse the more you think about it. That makes sense, because it’s a monster movie and as such it’s not meant to stand up to the intense scrutiny of some fancypants film critic. I don’t even have fancypants, though, and I still had some problems with it.
First, I don’t think it’s a bad movie, but it is disjointed. It feels like a couple of different stories have been stitched together, some of which would have been better off not being in there at all.
In an example of the film’s problems with tone, it starts darkly, with a post-funeral gathering for the mother of the main protagonist, a teen boy named Joe. A man is bum-rushed out of the boy’s house by the town deputy — the boy’s father. It is later revealed that the man is the one who missed his shift at the factory and Joe’s mother went in to cover and got squished dead in some sort of horrible industrial accident. The man’s daughter later serves as the proto-love interest of Joe.
None of this is relevant to the main plot and could have been removed in its entirety. I am guessing it was put in to add depth to the characters or something. It’s a monster movie. You don’t need depth. You need monsters.
The film then lightens up considerably as it settles on the four boys and girl shooting their homemade zombie movie. As Super 8 is set in 1979, their little production is done on, well, a Super 8 camera. The scenes of them putting the movie together are charming and the interaction among the kids — arguing, blurting out non-sequiturs and acting weird in little ways — feels authentic or at least authentic enough for the purposes of a monster movie.
While the kids are filming late at night outside a rail station, an approaching train collides with a truck, resulting in a spectacularly over the top wreck that launches the central plot of the movie as something big and clearly not good lumbers out of an overturned box car and disappears into the dark. When I say the train wreck is over the top, I am not employing hyperbole. Either J.J. Abrams really likes train crashes or he wasn’t confident enough to simply have the boxcars derail and the monster slink out unseen. Imagine a train getting hit by a tactical nuke and you have some idea of what the wreck was like. Okay, now I’m engaging in a little hyperbole. But only a little!
The military enters into the film in short order and Super 8 is one of those ‘military bad’ movies, so we find out the escaped monster has been previously examined, prodded and tortured by the men in uniform. So the monster — which later goes on to capture and eat several townspeople while also destroying half the place in order to get its spaceship working again — is meant to be at least somewhat sympathetic, like King Kong. Except Abrams doesn’t really pull it off so it’s a bit of a muddled mess instead. It doesn’t help that the monster itself is one of those colorless gray generic CGI things. It projects absolutely nothing — not anger, not empathy, nothing. Even at the end when it reveals human-like eyes, they feel dead, unseeing. It has a ‘psychic connection’ to its victims but it feels like a tacked-on device to explain why Joe is not immediately gulped down when the monster snatches him up in its lair. In fact, it’s unclear why the monster even chases after the puny kids when it’s clear it can stomp them like bugs with little effort and it’s actually trying to get its spaceship ready. Again, Abrams throws a lot of stuff together but the glue is missing.
The movie steers toward an increasingly uneven conclusion. The town is put under military evacuation. The kids escape and return. The army rolls in tanks and soldiers that seem to be shooting all over the place. There’s only one monster, guys. Shoot at the monster, not every building you see. Or lamp post or whatever. Apparently the best plan of attack when trying to bring down a monster is “shoot in every direction”. The kids are able to run through this literal warzone unscathed and unnoticed.
A scene in the monster’s lair below the town’s water tower (a location whose importance is telegraphed early on) is meant to be suspenseful but hews so closely to horror movie tropes that it comes off as merely by-the-numbers. The worst bit is probably the pyromaniac boy’s lighter refusing to light until just in the nick of time! I rolled my eyes. For real!
Proving that it wasn’t just a Star Trek thing, Abrams employs plenty of lens flare in Super 8 and it is never less than distracting, particularly when there is no apparent source for it. I have theorized that all of Abrams’ movies take place in an alternative universe where light is magic and can appear spontaneously.
The 1979 setting is handled well for the most part and I didn’t notice any anachronisms. Abrams does bonk you over the head with the retro setting a few times, though, most notably in a scene at a gas station where the young clerk marvels over a Walkman. “Yeah, it’s this cool portable music device called a SONY WALKMAN. Haha, it’s like being in the future, except it’s only 1979!”
The end, with the monster (alien, really) spaceship lifting up into the sky, plays like an awkward homage to ET. But ET was cute and tender and lovable and Super 8′s alien is ugly, eats people and trashes the place. It’s less an “Aw, he’s going back home” scene and more of a “I’m glad that sucker is gone” thing, though the silent reaction of the townfolk watching suggests more the former. I can’t help but think Super 8′s sequel (What would they call it? Betamax?) would start with an alien armada arriving to take revenge on Earth.
Despite everything I’ve written, I did enjoy the movie. The scenes with the kids are charming, especially when they’re making their little zombie movie. In fact, that probably would have been a better movie than the main plot of Super 8. As monster movies go, Super 8 comes off as watchable but disjointed, with awkward shifts of tone, unnecessary subplots and an ending that sputters out. I give it a thumb sideways, slightly up if there’s a strong breeze blowing.