Dear Super 8,
Your advertising gave me a very specific picture of the kind of film you would be. Everything from your 1970s aesthetic to your themes of fathers and sons and the inclusion of an otherworldly mystery lead me to believe you would be a kind of Spielberg-esque homage to a time when monsters in movies could be met with awe and wonder, in addition to fear. I had begun to look forward to your childlike innocence and the sense of mystery you shrouded yourself in.
And at first you lived up to this expectation. Immediately you introduce us to a small, suburban town complete with steel mill and local sheriff’s office. We meet most of our principles at the wake for the mother of our young protagonist, Joe Lamb. She was killed at the mill in an industrial accident, and when the man who is indirectly implicated in this accident arrives Joe’s previously absent father shows him roughly to the door. This scene, complete with an introduction to Joe’s weird, comical friends, is a wonder of tone and narrative construction. We get a sense of the closeness of these people, the depth of their wounds over Mrs. Lamb’s loss. Through their tragedy we feel immediately for them and wish to follow them.
Problems arise, however, once your more immediate narrative kicks into gear. Joe and his friends are making a zombie film for an 8mm film competition, and go to an old railway station to shoot late one night. With them is a pretty young girl from their class who Joe is immediately drawn to, and vice versa. Their tender introductory scenes and the romance that follows anchors a lot of what will occur in this film, giving an even greater emotional core to all that will occur. However, in the midst of their meeting and the filming of their film, the kids become witness to a massive train wreck. It is this moment that is indicitve of the tonal dischord that haunts what is otherwise, to me, a great film.
You see, in E.T., a film you clearly aspire to, the shady government officials may have carried guns, but you never got the feeling that they were predisposed to using them on children. As such, the human opponents and the obstacles they posed to the protagonists in that movie were thrilling, rather than threatening. However, this train crash sequence is a study in real terror. These kids, small and frail against the careening mass of colliding freight cars, run for their lives with fear and anxiety in their eyes. Cars fly through the air and fall with real, palpable weight and gravity. Explosions throw these kids many feet in the air. That they survive isn’t a testament to their youthful tenacity, but to luck alone. While the scene is a visceral, heart stopping thrill to watch, it was hard for me to shake the feeling that the danger shouldn’t be so real.
But this is not a deal breaker for me. A moment of real fear and life-or-death stakes and heighten the response to the rest of a film. Besides, what follows is a study in escalating tension when animals run away from home in all directions, people begin to go missing, and the power slowly fades as the Air Force takes over. We get the idea that something bad is out there in the world now. The kids keep trying to film their monster movie, using the omnipresent train wreck and Air Force cleanup to add ‘production values.’ This allows them to insert themselves into the story without being seemingly shoe-horned in – especially after the military’s faint efforts to find them fail to pay off.
But then comes the final act, with its emotional and narrative turns. A few old idioms come to mind that you might have tried to remember, Super 8. One is “have your cake and eat it.” Though, in your case, this would be “have your Alien and E.T.” Without getting too much into spoilers, you really can’t have a movie be both of those things at once. Another idiom would be “show, don’t tell.” When evidence is piled against something, having a group of characters read their way into a totally contradictory way of thinking just doesn’t make sense. One of two more scenes, or even adjustments to existing scenes, would have allowed you to execute this tonal reverse with much more poise and conviction.
All of that, though, is somehow not enough to sink you for me. You are a gorgeous, well cast and well made film. Your young leads create an emotional foundation that supports any real complaints I might have against you, and your action scenes are well executed and engrossing as well. Though your symbolism toward the end of it all could have used some toning down, you somehow find your way back to Spielberg territory just in time to create a sense of wonder – though maybe also dread.
It is this that most bothers me. With a little more work in either direction you could have been a powerful statement on perceiving that which we have no way to understand. The moral could have been about threats that are simply misunderstood, or compassion wrongfully given. As it stands, you went for the more positive one, but without fully convincing me that you earned it, even though you seemed to think so. The misgivings and doubts toward your narrative that you left me with may have been unintentional on your part, but they make for some interesting questions.
As with before I had seen you, the movie in my head seems like a really good one, and one I would like to see. Though, even with that in mind, you’re no slouch yourself.
Good work, but not great,
Brian J. Roan