I never really know exactly how I feel about a movie immediately after seeing it, unless I absolutely loved it or hated it. The rest of the time, if the movie has underwhelmed in some way, I only have a vague sense of what I’m feeling, a restlessness that I’ll ponder over for days until I suss out exactly what didn’t work. This has never been more true than with Super 8, the new J.J. Abrams movie that I saw a couple of days ago, which is way I feel it warrants a blog post.
For the first hour, I was actually really taken with it. And by “it”, I mean the ensemble of kid actors who were funny and natural, and the spectacular action sequences, especially the big train wreck at the beginning that was tense and showed the kids reacting realistically, which kept me in the moment. J.J.’s timing is great in these cases. As a jaded movie-goer, I generally know when the monster is going to grab the guy, or when what’s-his-name is going to punch the cop, but J.J. really steps around that, and it’s incredibly refreshing. Aside from that, the general look and feel of “small town America” in the 70s was warm and inviting, and the intrigue surrounding the alienmonsterguy and his crazy metal cubes was piquing my interest. All good so far.
But there was a certain point where I couldn’t help but want more. I got the sense that this movie was pieced together from other great movies – Stand By Me, E.T. – and though the pieces fit really well together, and I enjoyed the ride… I was disappointed that it didn’t try to offer anything new. It’s like serving me the perfect apple pie, when you promised me a new recipe, or at least a new take on the classic apple pie. J.J. succeeds in creating a beautiful, exciting “Spielbergian” movie, but based on his history – Lost, Star Trek – I think he’s capable of being a little more inventive.
By the time the movie neared its end, I had given up hope that it would break out of his archetype and offer something a little different, a little daring, and I’d settled into the pre-fabricated rhythms of so many movies that have come before like slipping into a warm bath. Nice, but not exciting.
And the ending itself? Overly sentimental. Definitely. Don’t even get me started on the locket (although maybe I’m just jaded). And Joe spontaneously spouting a beautifully poignant life lesson while in mortal danger, one that applies to both his story and the alien, was expected – not necessarily in a bad way, I admit it’s a good device for connecting those two parallel stories – but it just felt really forced coming out of his mouth in that moment, especially when, as I’ll explain next, it didn’t feel earned.
In the case of both our young protagonist, Joe, and his father, I also didn’t feel that their grand character arcs were earned. Joe managed to let go of his mother’s locket and believe that “bad things happen, but you can keep living” but we don’t see him learn this. His father’s storyline has the same problem. I heard someone argue that he learns to fight back against authority, but I argue he was like that from the beginning. Not much changed on that front. By the end, he did seem to open up to Joe but, again, he more or less stumbled into that resolution out of the necessity of realizing his son was in danger and running after him, relieved to find him alive. Does he actually come to terms with understanding Joe or letting go of his grief – his main obstacles set up from the beginning of the film – no, he doesn’t.
Meanwhile, behind all this family drama, we have an alien story. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t there supposed to be a big secret? Some kind of surprise, or suspense? I actively avoided spoilers, trailers and special clips so that I could go into this movie as ignorant as possible, but I didn’t find anything surprising about the alien aspect of the movie. Yes, the metal cubes were cool and how they worked was interesting – not pivotally interesting, just neat. Yes, the back story with the teacher was a good way for the kids to investigate and learn about the alien – but the actual details about how the government captured the alien and wouldn’t let him go home, thus turning him into an enemy was a bit easy. I think the problem was that as soon as I realized it was an alien, and not some other kind of monster, the rest of the plot fell into place. Maybe another problem was that part of the marketing strategy for the movie was to encourage people to talk about it on Twitter with the hashtag #Super8Secret. After the movie, even if I had wanted to spoil the ending for other people, I wasn’t even sure there was anything to spoil.
The worst part about all this? I really, really wanted to love Super 8. And to an extent, I did. I loved all the pre-fabricated parts to this movie (yay Spielberg!) just as much as I loved the young cast and awesome action sequences. The timing was great, the jokes were great, the life-and-death situations were gripping! But, in the end, it was a movie I’d seen before. And it could have been so much more. I hate to say it, but, we don’t need more Spielbergian movies. I, for one, want to see a truly original Abramsian movie. And I hope I do.