Super 8 is 2/3 of a great movie, and 1/3 of an OK one. Its good fortune is that all of its major flaws are contained in its last act, by which point it’s already built up so much goodwill that it it’s easy to forgive them. Or, at least, it was for me. On the flip-side, I suppose there might be some viewers who will find the weak climax to be especially aggravating given the stellar build-up. It can go either way, really. Your results may vary.

The story involves a group of kids in the year 1979, spending their summer shooting a Super 8 zombie movie for a local film competition. One night they decide to gain a little production value by shooting at the railroad station on the outskirts of town. They get more than they could have ever bargained for, though, when a massive military train derails right in front of them (the physics of this scene are pretty laughable, but it’s such a thrilling sequence that it’s hard to care). In the chaos their camera is dropped, and it is only later, when the film is developed, that they discover they unknowingly filmed SOMETHING escaping from one of the damaged train cars. Gee, do you think whatever it was might have something to do with all the missing townspeople, electronics and dogs since the incident? Or with the military units basically placing the town under quarantine. I bet it does. What do you think?

As you have probably already read in, oh, just about EVERY piece written on the film, Super 8 is J.J. Abram’s loving tribute to the movies he grew up on, in particular early Spielberg (who produces this movie) and the films of Amblin Entertainment. And yes, it definitely feels like a tribute to those films, which in turn also means it doesn’t feel very original. Pretty much every sequence in this film is carefully crafted and engineered to feel like a film from another era. Now, some will complain about this, or suggest it lessens the importance of what Abrams himself was bringing to the table, but I’m not one of them. There is an art to well-done homage (just ask Quentin Tarantino). Sure, Super 8 is hardly the most original movie ever made, but what’s wrong with enjoying a nice throwback to another time? As an experiment in nostalgia, this is darn good stuff.

The first two acts, which play more like a mystery, are tremendous. During this part of the movie, it’s really more the interplay between the characters than it is the monster. Sometimes that can be bad news in a movie where the main characters are all kids, but the cast of kids here are all a lot of fun (well, alright, I could have lived without the one who complains and vomits all the time), and all very good child actors, to boot. And the initial monster attack scenes are incredibly well handled, building great tension and, when necessary, delivering great jump moments. I loved all this stuff, and for a while thought this was on its way to having a real shot at becoming one of the classics it’s so obviously emulating.

But then, there’s that ending. It is in the film’s final act that you can most sense Abrams going for a Spielberg sort of feel, and not surprisingly it is here where he falters (there’s only one Spielberg, after all). Without giving anything away, there are a series of emotional pay-offs in the film’s climax that simply do not work. At best, they feel out of place and unearned (the resolution of the storyline regarding the main boy and his distant father), at worst they are downright silly (the final outcome of the kids’ encounter with the creature). I get that Abrams wanted the final moments to have heavy emotional weight, but it’s like he never realized that, up until here, he has been making a fairly standard monster movie, and forgot to adequately set-up all the pieces needed to hammer these moments home. Like I said, I dug the movie enough up to this point that it didn’t completely lose me here, but it’s still frustrating to see the steam so suddenly let out of what had been such a great time until now. Unfortunately, I really do believe that this poorly written third act will inevitably prevent Super 8 from being the modern classic it maybe could have been with a stronger climax. You might not be hearing a lot of complaining about the ending now, as a lot of folks are clearly just grooving on the movie’s admittedly awesome nerd thrills. But I think more people will notice the story flaws over multiple viewings, especially once it’s on home video and cable and you’re not as easily distracted by the coolness of the big-screen experience. That’s not to say people won’t enjoy the film anymore – I still enjoyed it overall, despite my issues. Of course, it also certainly helps that it almost immediately makes up for its weak ending by actually showing the kids’ homemade zombie movie over the end credits. I don’t know about you, but pretty much any movie can win me back over by showing a cheesy zombie flick at the end.

So, no, J.J. Abrams doesn’t quite reach the level of the films he is paying tribute to with this unabashed love letter of his, but I’m giving him points for trying and coming so damn close. It’s a testament to a film’s overall strength when even a disappointing climax doesn’t sour me on the whole thing (as has definitely happened with other movies). For the majority of its running time, Super 8 doesn’t just work; it nails it out of the park. And it IS a nice reminder of a different kind of summer blockbuster, one that is sorely missed nowadays. In their first collaboration, Abrams and Spielberg have come THIS close to making the geek masterpiece their partnership seemed to promise. Maybe they didn’t quite get it this time, but boy, do I look forward to a second try.

 

 

This review was originally posted at Trevor Likes Movies on June 13th, 2011.

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