When the great fake critic Joe Bob Briggs was hosting Monstervision on TNT back in the mid-1990s, he was often forced to show films that he didn’t appreciate. This didn’t happen when he was on premium channels like The Movie Channel, proudly examining low budget schlock behind his stereotypical redneck character, where the exposure was lower and the censorship infinitesimal. During his TNT run, Joe Bob found himself having to dissect movies like Look Who’s Talking Too and Mannequin 2: On the Move. One of his funniest episodes (he commented right after the commercial breaks), was an eye-opening experience for me, because it was when I realized that all 7 year olds were and are dumb. Especially me.
The subject of his mockery was The Goonies, which does not play very well outside of its Spielberg-influenced vacuum. With its cynical pandering, constantly sucking up to its young audience and some terribly sloppy writing, especially in the way that plot strands were just left to hang, suggesting that the movie was made in quite a rush, The Goonies deserved every moment of Joe Bob’s evisceration. As he put it so succinctly, “this movie has more loose ends than a gay bar.”
Now J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, produced by Spielberg, seems to have those same cynical paws all over it. It’s about adventurous kids disobeying their parents and discovering their true, blah, blah, blah. And just like The Goonies, there are logic and script problems everywhere. Granted this is a story about what might be “out there” and fantastical sci-fi doesn’t require strict adherence to plausibility. Super 8 deals with what happens when children are shooting a low-rent zombie movie and they happen to be exactly in the wrong place, and as they flee a train crash, they leave their Super 8 camera running, which supposedly captures the true nature of the accident. Now seeing as the film takes place in 1979 and there’s a subplot about the stoner who works at the film developers saying that it will take at least a few days for the film to be developed, I think we can safely assume that they weren’t shooting on video. So I went back in time to my own experience in film school, remembering when I shot on 16MM film, concurrently with my Monstervision experiences, and that you had to hold the button down the entire time you were shooting, or the camera would stop rolling. In Super 8, the kids run away from the camera, and accidentally capture the accident.
I intended to do tons of research about 8MM consumer cameras of that era and whether or not you had to hold the button down (or maybe even crank them?) until I realized one very important thing about Super 8. Yes, this is a potentially gaping and inexcusable plot hole. But it doesn’t matter. Why? Because the kids have no effect on the story, not the military’s interference in the accident clean up, not the finale, etc., etc. If you took the kids out of the movie, the outcome would be exactly the same. The Super 8 reel that they are so excited to see makes no difference with regards to their behavior either, so it’s almost as if the entire movie is a MacGuffin. Is that a sloppy choice by Abrams*, catering to what he assumes is the mass audience by giving us kids in a sci-fi movie, hiding the “monster” for as long as he can, Cloverfield-style, for suspense reasons, but really because he knows the CGI will be unconvincing**?
I’m on the fence myself, but it renders most of Super 8 meaningless. Going into the film with only the knowledge that it would be a sci-fi film that involved a camera, the suspense worked for me for over an hour (but so did Cloverfield, and it was about 80 minutes pre-credits, vs. a shade under 2 hours for Super 8), but the underwhelming reveal, and the lazy story construction where the military is purely evil, stoners are used as hammy say-no-to-drugs messages as well as the butt of jokes from tweens, and the notion that a hateful, hopeless, abusive drunk can be redeemed by a crisis and a hug.
That’s not to suggest that the film is an utter waste, certainly fans of lens flares will be in heaven (as artificial as they likely are). And there’s also the utterly stunning performance by Elle Fanning, simultaneously hardened and see through, as Alice***, the pre-goth goth girl (but blond) that all the younger boys have a crush on. There’s nothing particularly memorable about the main characters apart from Alice, there’s the fat, bossy one (Charles), the one who is all gums and braces and likes to blow up things (Cary), the lanky one who throws up when he’s upset (Martin), and the lead, the sad, motherless kid who like to build model trains and is also the son of the sheriff (Joe). These kids, who get most of the film’s screen time are not particularly specific in any other way, they’re simply types. They have dialogue that’s just schtick intended for Grandmothers who like small white kids and re-assuring crowd-pleasers. When the squeamish Martin gets hurt, Charles is about tie up the tourniquet and Martin winces. Charles, almost nudging the crowd in the ribs, utters, “Jeez, I didn’t even do it yet”****.
Obviously, this is all familiar material, and the moments of joy are dashed when you realize what’s actually going on. Hey, Joe’s dad looks just like Robert Forster! But he’s not. Hey, Charles’ dad sounds just like M. Emmet Walsh, and there’s a lengthy delay before we see his face! But he’s not M. Emmet Walsh. Hey, Alice’s dad is Ron Eldard, hidden beneath a very silly looking blond shag wig! Yes, he really is wearing that wig.
Fanning, who is supposed to be (and is successfully) angelic and sensitive, is very much the advanced precocious type that her older sister Dakota was, and fits the wispy, creepy template that a lot of these actor families share. You could stick any Culkin in Super 8 and he could have an ethereal-off with Elle Fanning*****.
* It would be very easy to point out that Abrams is still shooting his movies like he shoots TV, safe 1.85 framing inside a wide 2.35 frame (so nothing particularly important is ever at the edges of the frame), meaning he hasn’t learned much in the way of technique from Spielberg. And so, I will point it out.
** Yes, this is clearly modeled on Jaws, but the difference in that case was that the monster was real. It may have been an animatronic pain-in-the-ass, but the shark was a tangible thing. You could show portions of it and people might believe it was actually eating the actors. In the case of CGI, the actors are literally staring at nothing (or maybe tennis balls to give them an idea where to look), so the effects better be convincing.
*** Fanning’s scene where she rehearses her acting for the boys before they start rolling the camera is not only shocking and overwhelming for the characters, but us too. Fanning has phenomenal control over every shot she appears in.
**** For all the bombast that the story engages in it’s awfully strange how desperate the film is to make sure we think it’s “cute.”
***** The thought that the Culkins and the Fannings could one day mate is truly frightening, we would never long for a film villain ever again. Plus they could combine their names. Canning. Fulkin. Cunning.