These kids are going to have long, awesome careers if  their performances in Super 8 weren’t flukes.

The usual warning: I am not going to be shy about spoilers.

Super 8 is a victim of its own hype in many ways. Something JJ Abrams really needs to learn is to reign in his marketing guru persona when it comes to projects that are betting on a bit more subtlety than, say, Star Trek. Not that there’s anything subtle about a movie that is meant to be a modern retelling of E.T. in specific terms and a grand homage to Spielberg in general. But that works against Super 8 as well. Many of its critics, most of whom are simply disappointed as opposed to out and out calling this a bad film, are probably old enough to remember E.T. and be strongly reminded of it by nearly everything about Super 8. Their issue might boil down to something as simple as that this is not E.T.

Which doesn’t have to be a mark against the movie. Indeed, Super 8 is a wonderfully realized film that also happens to be a fairly original property (every film has roots somewhere) coming from a guy like Abrams who is a known commodity even when his projects aren’t.

The plot is both fairly simple and appealingly complex. The main story is what you’ve learned in the trailers: some kids are trying to make a movie and an alien escapes from a USAF train and starts wreaking havoc in their idyllic Ohio town. The secondary stories are character-based and the work there is very, very strong and I don’t know that it’s being given the credit it deserves if the mixed reviews are anything to go by.

There’s also, of course, the sorta-secondary/sorta-tertiary story of the alien creature itself. That this thing, unnamed and unknown as it largely is, has been relegated to the background as opposed to being a full character like E.T. is probably a source of frustration for people who want to know everything or have it all spelled out for them. For my part, I think it works out even if I suspect that Abrams just loves being mysterious for its own sake.

At the end of the day, though, Super 8 isn’t much of an alien movie. Not that what’s here is bad or even underdeveloped, it’s just not about the alien. It’s about Joe, mostly. He and his dad have a strained relationship and as shit hits the fan, it only gets worse with the familiar forbiddings, threats, and unspoken shared pain over the loss of Joe’s mom. We’ve seen all this stuff before. We’ve even seen the young, defiant girl who honestly loves her dad even though he’s a fucking mess. That we’ve seen this stuff before does not take away from how well it works in this movie. It is a movie that is very much about growing up.

This growing up theme is extended to the alien. In the penultimate scene of the movie, Joe literally stares the fucker down after his rescue of Alice seems to be ending in disaster. “We understand!” he shrieks at it, “Bad things happen, but you can still live.” Not the most articulate, but it applies just as much to the creature as it does to Joe. The alien is bent out of shape for understandable reasons, but it is largely an extension of Joe’s frustration and pain. They are kindred spirits, but not in the hokey scifi psychic way that ET and Elliot were (not that this was bad, it was perfect in fact and I applaud Abrams for not trying to outdo that relationship but rather pay homage to it symbolically). This is what makes the scene where Joe and the alien finally meet so pivotal. It is the only moment in the film where the alien rears up on its hind legs and appears humanoid. It is also the only real moment that captures the sense of awe Abrams is obviously going for and that Spielberg is pretty well the grandmaster of.

A lot is being made out of the weird way the movie dumps Joe and Alice’s fathers after the one goes into action hero mode to escape USAF custody and all. They are relegated to a stilted forgiveness scene (it was Alice’s dad who was supposed to be working the day Joe’s mom died) and then meeting up with their kids after their climactic confrontation with the alien has come and gone. This, I declare, is not a script problem or weakness of the movie.

Rather, it is totally deliberate. It ties back to the decision to keep Tom Cruise’s son alive in War of the Worlds. This was declared to be a stupid decision and I think, in a lot of ways, it’s because the movie is basically from Cruise’s perspective and that perspective is pretty sure the boy is wrong, dumb, and gonna die. Similarly, Alice and Joe’s dads think they know best. That Joe is so heroic and successful is the ultimate statement about his having grown up. The dads are not needed for rescue because the rescue has already happened. The kids have grown up enough to know what is best for them, what they want, and how to be their own people. To have the dads swoop in and save the day would undermine that, just like it would have undermined the statement about Cruise’s fatherhood in War of the Worlds had his son died on that hill. This is very Spielbergian, this idea that kids can rise above the rules and limitations set on them by their parents and still emerge in the win column.

I know I’m not exactly gushing. Super 8 is a good movie. It may even be a great movie. That said, it is not going to have the cultural effect of E.T. though I don’t believe it’s trying to. Abrams has crafted a film that is as much an homage to that Spielberg sensibility we know and alternately love/revile as it is an update to it. This is why the alien is much more complex. Abrams knows modern audiences can handle the ambiguity of a sympathetic alien that seems to eat people. He knows we can handle the S-word, people pointing guns at kids, and so on. As much as Super 8 capitalizes on the sentimentality of Spielberg’s family-friendly movies, it also pushes past them and is far more relevant to the younger audience it was meant for. It is also a helluva lot funnier. I was surprised by how funny Super 8 is and it’s 100% because of how good the kids are. They, not the alien, are the MVP of this movie.

This isn’t to say I don’t have problems with it. They are mostly minor nitpicks, though, which says something about the movie. I thought that the little “rubix cube” pieces of the aliens ship looked like plastic toys. They were either poorly designed or poorly produced by the prop people. In general, the idea that they were weird alien metamaterial just wasn’t gotten across well at all. In addition, there is Abrams’ distracting penchant for ridiculous lens flares. As bad as they were in Star Trek, there was a certain sense to heightening the future-world element of that movie. In Super 8, they are everywhere again and completely ruin some otherwise beautiful shots by rendering them unbelievably fake-looking.

Otherwise, Abrams has superb visual sensibilities and there are some very iconic Spielberg-style shots in Super 8.

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