Critic-at-large Jeff Koch probes the split-personality of one of this summer’s power flicks.

Super 8 is really two movies.

The first movie exists on a very small-scale. It’s the story of a young boy coping with the loss of his mother and subsequent emotional distance from his father and his group of friends as they endeavor to make a movie (on, you guessed it, Super 8 film).

The second movie exists on large-scale. It’s a summer blockbuster monster movie with loud explosions, giant set pieces, not one but two over-the-top vehicular crashes, all the requisite CGI, and the aforementioned monster.

The fact that the two movies fit together at all is a testament to writer/director J.J. Abrams and Executive Producer Steven Spielberg (who is a master at blending the intimate with the bombastic). At no time does the viewer ever feel displaced or suddenly jolted out of the world created in the film. Still, as the film moves along towards its inevitable and mildly disappointing conclusion, it’s nearly impossible to shake the feeling that the better of the two movies got left behind, and that spectacle won out over heart, grandiosity over intimacy.

Image from Super 8
The two young leads give Super 8 its heart and soul

Which isn’t to say that the large-scale movie is bad; in fact, it’s better than most over-bloated films you’ll see during the summer (I’m looking at you, Transformers movies). The introduction to the monster movie is a train wreck that literally shook the walls of the theater. (And yet, the best moment of the train wreck was the emotional reactions of the children in the ‘other’ movie.) Abrams is a master pacer, giving us small doses of the monster every so often, and revealing just a little bit more each time. He’s clearly done his homework at the feet of Spielberg. By the time we finally see the monster in all of its CGI glory, he feels like one of the more fully developed characters in the movie. (I still think that monsters are best left unrevealed, leaving the viewer’s imagination to do the work; but commerce and popular opinion [see Abrams’ 2008 Cloverfield as the counterexample] tell me that I’m wrong. This is a topic for another day, however.)

There is technically nothing wrong with this film. And perhaps that’s where the disconnect occurs: it all seems so technical, so rote. Even with solid actors playing the more important roles, everything seems a little flat. Kyle Chandler gives his best effort as the estranged father, but it’s a one note performance whose resolution is too predictable and too unfeeling. Every adult character is a type, one trait played out ad infinitum to the whims of the plot, pushing us (with perfect pace, mind you) to the inevitable big spectacle conclusion.

Again, none of this would be all that bad on its own, and it’d be a fine movie. But oh, that small-scale movie, so full of heart and emotion and development and real characters having real interactions in honest and funny, heartbreaking ways. And the acting. When this movie is juxtaposed to the larger one, the explosions are found lacking, the wrecks dull, and the time spent waiting to get back to the kids.

The kids steal the show. Everything about this small group of friends rings true. The relationships are depicted as messy and turbulent interactions defined by an underlying unyielding friendship. The kids are brutal with each other; the kids are eternally devoted to each other. Obstacles small (first love!) and large (a monster invades the town!) alike seek to impede the making of this summer movie, but nothing can impede the children’s first steps into coming of age.

None of this could be possible without great acting. It’s quite easy to be forcefully shoved out of a movie’s world by children’s (understandable) stilted acting. Not here. The best performances in the movie dwell within the hearts and minds of these young actors. Joel Courtney gives life and heart to the main character, the young man who has recently lost his mother (and clings to a locket with her picture in it, a powerful visual image mismanaged at the end), doesn’t know how to relate to his father, and seeks refuge amongst his friends. His face shows the sorrow buried not so deep within him, yet also lets the growing confidence and courage seep out.

But the movie is entirely stolen by Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard . She is brought in to play the female lead of the movie within the movie. In her first big scene, the children are shooting a scene for their movie. She is told that it would be great if she could cry during the scene. Before filming, they rehearse the scene, and Alice nails it, finding nuance and those tears, as the boys just stare at her slack-jawed. So will you. Once the scene is over, she snaps out of it and flippantly asks: how was that? Now she’s just toying with the boys, and you can see each of their hearts breaking. Later, in one of the more poignant scenes, Alice cries for real, and these tears are tender and vulnerable. Fanning lets you know the difference; you’ll feel your heart-break.

The two movies exist in relative isolation for the first part, but slowly build towards and against each other, leading towards the inevitable crash and merge. This is not a bad thing. What is disappointing, though, is how the large-scale movie sublimates the small-scale one. The tonal shift is sudden, and what seemed like an intimate character study disguised as a monster movie suddenly becomes a summer blockbuster with just the slightest of tiny beating hearts.  We still get our emotional pay-offs, but compared to the set-ups, they feel hollow and like cheating. As the monster steals more and more of the focus of the movie, I found myself eagerly anticipating my next moments with the kids.

And then, finally, the last scene. The two movies are racing, side-by-side, to their respective conclusions. The capital-M Movie has a choice to make: which smaller movie within the Movie will win out and be given the final denouement, that very last moment that let’s the viewer know: this was the more important of the two films, the story we were really trying to tell. The monster gets his say with impressive but mostly empty fireworks, and the screen slowly fades to black. For what seemed like an interminable amount of time (but what amounted to just a few seconds), I waited for the screen to light back up, for the coda (that I just knew was coming) to appear and resolve the movie with heart rather than histrionics.

The coda never came. The credits rolled, and the Movie had made its choice.

Ultimately, then, this was a monster movie. Too bad. It’s a good monster movie; but it could have been a great Movie, period.

Editor’s Note: Those who have seen the film will know that there is an “addendum” to the story line during the credits. I confronted Jeff about this and asked if it didn’t change his opinion slightly. His answer was firm: “I loved it, but it doesn’t let the directors off the hook.”

Rating: 8.0 / 10.0

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About bensten

Teacher, writer, blogger and spiritual practitioner. Managing editor of bensten.wordpress.com.

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