There’s a point in Super 8 where our hero Joe (Joel Courtney) is standing on a porch with Alice (Elle Fanning), the cute girl he has a crush on, asking her to finish his friend’s film. Of course, during their last adventure, they ended up in the midst a traumatic train wreck. (The kids seem relatively unshaken after the fact, but whatever.) Her deadbeat drunkard of a dad pulls up, recognizes Joe as ‘the deputy’s boy’ and tells him to fozz off, never to come up here again. Rather than obey, he stands there like a stupid puppy. She agrees to continue filming her role, but only after he continues to idle with a dumb look on his face. It’s this false tension and anti-climax that sums up Super 8.
You could tell from the trailers that this was J.J. Abrams’ send-up of producer Steven Spielberg’s E.T., but hip and happenin’ for 2011. Joe, Alice, and his film crew friends (he does makeup) are filming a scene at a train station when he notices a pickup hopping onto the tracks, aiming dead-on for a passing train. After an incredible action sequence which sends train cars crashing, compiling, and flying all over the place, the kids gather and then, y’know, just kinda look around. Hey, let’s go on top of that box car. Oh, there’s the truck, it’s still sitting there. Oh, the driver is somehow still alive. Let’s go up to him. So on. Afterward, a variety of weird things happen: people get abducted by a largely unseen monster. Dogs flee en masse. Jump scares, Lens flares. Lots of ’em.
It’s not even that Super 8‘s a bad film, it’s a pretty good one. The kids are good actors, the script is funny, Kyle Chandler is great on-screen as Joe’s terse dad, but like E.T., there’s an obtuse lack of villainy here. Scary stuff happens, but it all feels happenstance; they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our junior filmmakers seem like by-standers in all of this well-performed action, watching what everyone else is doing. In fact, I wager you could’ve written the kids out of the film altogether as they only serve to bring human drama and backstory to the film. (Of course, that would’ve meant no hilarious reason to stay to watch the credits, either.) By the end, you wonder if you should be cheering or jeering for that escaped alien from that train car. I felt a level of disconnect from most of what was going on, except the kids themselves, since the film felt like watching the on-car footage of tourists on a roller coaster. You understand their feelings of shock, joy, and confusion, but the blurry mess around them seems insubstantial.