Super 8 ☕ (J.J. Abrams, 2011)

Seriously, Mr. Abrams — enough with the freaking lens flare!  Don’t you hire a professional cinematographer specifically for the purpose of making sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen?  Do you really want your entry in the figurative Biography of Cinema Auteurs to read: “J.J. Abrams. TV and film producer/creator.  Signature tropes: labyrinthine conspiracies and obsequious lens flares.”  You know what’s worse?  The lens flares aren’t even the worst thing about the film.  The worst thing is that you made a remake of E.T. in which everyone’s favorite Reese’s pieces addict is the Cloverfield monster’s kid brother.  It just plain doesn’t work.

First of all, Super 8 starts out as a film about film.  To this end, it has some nifty scenes and some potentially great characters.  Centering on a young boy who recently lost his mother, the film tells the story of Joe falling in love with the daughter of the man indirectly responsible for his mom’s death.  More than that, it’s set in the early 80s in an industrial town, and this boy and his friends are all film geeks.  They love Star Wars and Dawn of the Dead.  It’s an all-American take on Cinema Paradiso, and there’s an undeniable energy about it that confidently assumes the posture of co-producer Steven Spielberg as he not-so-confidently moved into his self-consciously “mature” phase with films like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun.

Then a crazy dude smashes his truck into a train and an alien monster gets out.  And these kids are still trying to film their amateur film in the midst of all of it.  Right up until about halfway through the movie, at which point the story abandons their film-within-a-film drama and turns into Baby Godzilla attacks small-town America.  I won’t pretend that Super 8 was a masterpiece in the making.  The performances of the child actors, while ranging from strong to serviceable, were not masterful.  Nor has Abrams yet developed the discipline to trust his instincts.

As choppy as Star Trek was, so are some of the relatively mundane domestic scenes in Super 8.  An early tracking shot in the film, following Joe’s perspective (from behind him as he sits on a swingset) as he watches a car pull up and the driver get out and walk up to his front door, suddenly cuts to a shot of Joe’s face.  This breaks the spell, the tension of the shot, which might have been more potent had it been held as a single take, especially when the driver (the man blamed for Joe’s mom’s death) is thrown out of the house by Joe’s dad.  The lack of patience permeates Super 8; it might be the reason why Abrams felt compelled to add a monster.  But even after he adds the monster, he can’t trust himself to keep the monster a monster.  A dime-turn scene in the last fifteen minutes of the movie has Joe forge a psychic connection with the alien monster.  “Bad things happen,” he says.

“Oh,” the alien monster replies, wiping the blood of slain innocents off his gnarly jaw.  “You make a fair point.  My apologies.  Run along home now.  I’ll just be on my way.”

Almost as if Abrams felt compelled to combat the nagging aftershocks of Reaganite cinema, it is the military that is ultimately painted as the “bad guys” in this film.  No rah-rah patriotism here.  While Spielberg was content simply to have Eliot and E.T. escape back to the extraterrestrial’s space ship, fleeing the men with guns (not flashlights, as the “director’s cut” would have you believe), parting on a heartfelt, warm goodbye, Abrams has his E.T. destroy the men he blames for his captivity, as well as some random townspeople.  When E.T. got free, he just went home.  When Cloverfield Jr. gets free, he makes like a Predator in a terrorist training camp… which creates a sticky, distasteful impression that, somehow, some way, all those cornpone Americans had it coming, because the damn air force was so mean to the poor, misunderstood alien.

I’m sorry, but if this alien — so intelligent and intuitive as to form an instantaneous bond of empathy and communication with a little kid — is unable or unwilling to distinguish between his genuine enemies (the armed guys in fatigues) and innocent bystanders (gas pump jockey, housewife in curlers), then maybe he’s not such a sympathetic antagonist.  In fact, using him as a parallel for the main character does a disservice to Joe, who was dealing with his mother’s loss in an incredibly mature and sensitive way.

Abrams has a flair for spectacle, and the basic idea of the film’s beginning premise — kids dealing with grief and death as they make a zombie film — is rife with potential.  Much of it is realized in the scenes in which filming takes place, especially the hectic scene on the train platform, handled with a realistic, chaotic urgency yet filmed in a style bordering on magic realism.  Moments like this are where Super 8 shines, and though I would love to praise a film that grapples the difficulty of forgiveness and ultimately embraces it (like The Son), Super 8 doesn’t really earn it.

In his haste to make a unique, sideline perspective on a genre monster film, Abrams shortchanges the pain, excitement, and drama of adolescence as well as the scale and awe of an authentic monster mash.  In other words, the film was just good enough that, when it failed to come together in the end, it made me angry.  Though that’s a testament to Abrams’s potential as a filmmaker, it’s also a testament as to how far he has yet to go to realize his potential.  If he’s going to outstrip his talents with his ambition, the very least he could do is stop slicing his frames into horizontal segments with those damnable lens flares. ☕

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

14 responses to “Super 8 ☕ (J.J. Abrams, 2011)

  • Craig Simpson

    Saw this recently myself and had exactly the same reaction. While I think the term “huckster” is overused to describe filmmakers we don’t like (and you didn’t use it here), in Abrams case I think it applies. As you aptly described, his bait-and-switch from one type of movie to another just doesn’t work. Nothing builds on anything. The emotional “link” (or whatever) between the kid and the monster hasn’t been prepared for at all; it’s dropped from a tree. And as a whole “Super 8” has the same kind of overcomplicated, gum-up-the-works narrative problems that have always plagued Spielberg whenever he’s tried to go back and recapture his old magic. The movie needs a Melissa Mathison to craft a direct throughline in the script.

    He probably sees the lens flares as his “signature.” But it’ll go down as just one example of this curious period in cinema history where directors deliberately uglified their own movies.

    • mjschneider

      Thanks for the comment. The sad thing is that the movie *could* have made the kid/monster identification work. I’m sure that a kid in Joe’s situation might be full of all sorts of ugly, conflicted feelings. But apart from the brief moments when Alice brings up the mill or the tension between Joe and his father, there is nothing to suggest that there’s anything particularly tragic about his life. In fact, he seems to be a poster child for well-adjustment in the wake of parental loss. If anything, by suggesting a connection near the end as it does, the film takes a rather blithe attitude toward the whole subtext, which speaks terribly of it on another level. If not that in particular, anything might have worked better, as you say, if there had been any kind of throughline. But the only throughlines I saw were the ones etched horizontally by the stupid lens flares.

      And, yeah, the lens flare “signature.” Gawd. I’m trying to remember if it showed up anywhere in Mission: Impossible III. The sad thing is that the movie actually did have a lot of lovely, picturesque sequences in it that might have had a lot more resonance if, you know, it looked like the cinematographer knew what the devil he was doing.

  • Adam K

    Rewatched this on Saturday, had the exact same impressions (again). Still liked the end credits and Elle Fanning, although she gets woefully wasted as the token kid kidnappee (why were they being kidnapped again?).

    And as I tweeted at the time: “Even the very last shot of the spaceship leaving had fucking lens flare!”

    • mjschneider

      Maybe that last shot of the spaceship is meant to signify that the monster will now use his vastly superior technology to go back in time one hundred years and destroy the planet to prevent his getting captured. As opposed to simply warning himself to gas up the tank before taking a spin around the Milky Way. I swear, more interstellar conflicts would be circumvented if only people would stop crash-landing on top of military bases. When the needle’s on “E,” it means “Empty,” not “Eh, I can still get a few more miles out of it!”

  • Daniel Swensen (@surlymuse)

    I really didn’t notice that much lens flare in Super 8. Maybe because Trek had so damn much of it.

    I actually enjoyed this movie until the last fifteen minutes or so. The evolving mystery reminded me of Close Encounters a little bit.

    • mjschneider

      Actually, I think I was more sensitive to the lens flare specifically because of Trek.

      The unfortunate thing is that I, too, was enjoying the movie up until those last fifteen minutes. There were many scenes that I thought were very well realized, and I generally appreciated Abrams’s attempt to “Jaws” up the monster by holding off on the reveal as long as possible. The gas station scene was well-crafted, and I really loved the bit where Alice’s dad crashes his car, then sees her get taken in the rearview mirror. That worked very well.

      It wouldn’t have been a perfect movie by any means, but I would have been a bigger fan if that finale hadn’t completely torpedoed the whole works. I felt similarly about the Captain America movie, which I found to be hugely entertaining… right up until that last five minutes, which threw the entire movie into a dustbin and plastered a big neon “GO TO AVENGERS 2012!” sign up instead. That made me angry enough to spit.

  • Daniel Swensen (@surlymuse)

    Okay, your penultimate sentence made me laugh. Good on you, Schneider.

  • BNGPossum

    Besides being hugely distracting and annoying, the lens flare in Star Trek (2009) actually made me ill in the theater. So, when I heard that Super 8 had tons of lens flare, I steered well clear despite the fact it’s a genre film that I would normally be interested in. Hopefully he tones it down with the next Abramsverse Trek movie…but I doubt it.

    • mjschneider

      A movie making me physically ill is one of the key criteria for me not liking it. It was a major factor in my dislike of Avatar. I didn’t suffer the same during Trek ’09, but I can easily empathize. As I said, the sad thing is that if Abrams would have redacted the lens flare and done a slightly different ending, this would have been a very good movie. As Craig said, Abrams probably has come to view the lens flare as a kind of auteurist signature, so the next Trek will probably make you ill, too.

      But don’t worry! The producers are promising to make it more like Empire Strikes Back! Because nothing screams “This will be a great Star Trek movie!” like doubling down on the promise to make it more like Star Wars!

  • jesusisking

    I agree with some of your points, but do you really think that a bad ending ruins an otherwise good movie?

    I do see your frustration, I also did not like the ending.

    It was like the writers said: “OH HAI GAIS! LET’S NOT MAKE NO GOOD ENDING! GOOD ENDING NOT NECESSARY! WE GONNA BE RICHES ANYHOW! DURRRRRR/caps.

    The script feels like it could have used another draft or two, just to iron things out and add a nice gloss on the plot-line. Or whatever you call it.

    But I actually liked this movie despite it’s flaws, as it had emotional depth, it was entertaining, and the film being about making a film was just too much for my puny nerd brain to not gobble up and smile dumbly about.

    As for the lens flares, lol.

    Just, lol.

    If anybody would hate lens flares, it would be me. I am a visual effects artist, and I try to avoid those pesky little things as much as possible, but my dad sometimes forces my hand and that makes me sad. :(

    But even with that said, I BARELY even noticed the lens flares in this movie. It was like they were there, but not invasive. They actually kinda looked good in this movie….

    …LOL.

    So you can probably see that I don’t let my emotions get in the way of judging whether or not a movie is good or tripe. (No offense to you, of course.)

    If I did, I would have been viscously defending Fireproof.

    …LOL.

    As for the whole rushed storyline thing, this is a problem that I recently encountered with my writing; I work too fast. It’s hard for me to slow down and concentrate. It seems like the writers of Super 8 had the same problem, hence the ending.

    But I also found that when I went back and rewrote, the plotlines would get better and feel less rushed. Once again, they should have gone back and ironed it out, but Mister Jay Jay probably was too anxious thinking about his money so he decided to grab the current draft and make the film so that he can go have a nice, expensive, quad layered hamburger dinner with his pet parakeet and monkey smoking a Chinese cigar which tastes like broccoli and smoked tuna.

    (This post is getting off topic, sorry.)

    So in conclusion, to each their own. If you liked this movie, that’s fine. If you disliked this movie, that’s fine too. I just wanted to add my two cents.

    (This is a blog, after all.)

    • mjschneider

      Bad endings don’t always ruin otherwise good movies, but they almost never help. This is a case in which the entire story seems to have been constructed around the ending. I don’t think this is a case in which Abrams rushed the script, tossing a nonsensical finale in just because he couldn’t think of anything better and checks had to be cashed. The ending was clearly calculated, and it’s because I think the film’s perspective on its own themes is so thoroughly warped that I think the ending is bad, not because it seems like a momentary brain fart. Though I do think Abrams is an impatient filmmaker in an aesthetic sense, I don’t think that the flaws would have been fixed by six more months’ pre-production or a couple more drafts. The only thing that would have fixed the ending is if a better screenwriter with a better grasp of the moral themes of the story had written it in the first place, perhaps based on Abrams’s treatment. As I said, I really dug the film-within-a-film storyline. If Abrams had stuck with that and jettisoned the monster angle entirely, I think Super 8 would have been much, much better. But ending it the way he did displays a complete lack of sophistication in dealing with the ethical and moral dilemmas introduced earlier in the script. While most of the film is pretty well structured and the characters pretty well drawn, when I look at the function all the well-constructed stuff played in the overall thematic arc, even though I give Abrams credit for doing some very solid work, it all adds up to something rather awful. In retrospect, that would make it very hard to go back and enjoy the lead-up to that ending, knowing what role all those earlier (fairly well done) elements play in the terrible, insulting ending.

    • jesusisking

      Well, that does make sense. And yes, as I recently discovered, if you don’t what the hell you’re doing when you start writing, the story has a tendency to collapse in on itself later.

      I also wish Abrams just stuck with the story about film making, as I was MUCH more interested in that angle, and would have loved to see how they discover how to make a good film, obviously because that is what I’m busy doing research about.

      It would have been cooler if the story about the film meshed a lot more with the actual story about the kids, but the current result did leave me wanting more.

      Even though I enjoyed it, I don’t think this is a movie I will revisit another day.

    • mjschneider

      Maybe it’s worth revisiting; maybe it’s not. If you enjoyed it more than I did, you might get more out of it a second time. It was disappointing, but I look forward to Abrams continuing to develop as a filmmaker. If he ditches the lens flares and the Star Trek franchise, I think I’ll be much more disposed to enjoy his stuff. :)

    • jesusisking

      Yes, it was disappointing when it got to the lame ending, but I still kept the parts I enjoyed in close regard too.

      This was actually one thing my grandmother taught me, you don’t take the bad parts and throw out the whole film based on it, because that would make your film watching a waste of time.

      Instead, you take the parts you like, and walk out with them in mind, instead of all the bad parts. That way, you actually enjoy a film more.

      Now, I won’t kid you, some of the films she said was good? Eesh….

      But even to this day, I keep it in mind. I try to be critical of a movie and try to enjoy it at the same time, and that is no easy task.

      But at the end of the day, I guess your point about Super 8 is right. It was unsatisfying, and as a whole, the movie does suffer from a poor climax for the story-lines you were interested in.

      Once again, film making is no easy task, and this only proves I’ve got my work cut out for me!

      Regards.

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