"D.T., I don't think we should do this right now." - Elliot
"I fly better when I've had a few." - D.T.: The Drunken Terrestrial
In the Pacific during the second half of World War II, the United States frequently set up massive supply dumps on tiny and remote Melanesian islands that had previously seen very little outside contact. After the war ended and the supplies stopped arriving, some of the islanders constructed 1:1 scale model cargo planes out of grass and wood. The "cargo cult" planes, as they became known, were hopelessly naive imitations, not only incapable of flying, but unconnected to the vast and unseen networks that created and sustained the originals.
Anthropologists and ethnographers have since debated exactly why those Melanesians did that (it's also quite naive to just assume that they thought it would make the planes return), but one thing is certain: the grass planes didn't bring in any more stuff. Super 8 is the only film J.J. Abrams has ever directed that wasn't a part of someone else's franchise. And it is the grass plane version of E.T..
Like an ersatz E.T., Super 8 features a plucky band of American kids who happen upon an alien. Said creature is being pursued by government agents who don't exactly have the poor thing's best interests in mind. This being the movies, both sets of kids are pure of heart and see through to the alien's inner decency while the adults around them fumble and fail.
The similarities are hardly coincidental. Super 8 was marketed explicitly as harkening back to E.T. and the many "gang of kids" movies it spawned in the 1980s (Explorers, The Goonies, Monster Squad, etc). Abrams himself talked up the connection while doing publicity, and Steven Spielberg has a producer credit. In case there was any doubt, the only two names that appear on the poster are Abrams and Spielberg. The similarities are so obvious that Abrams even jokes about it at the very beginning of the director's commentary.
But like planes made out of grass that can never fly, Super 8 has fundamental shortcomings that keep it from being anything but an incapable imitation. In typical Abrams fashion, there is a near clinical need to goose the audience's attention every ten minutes or so with some kind of action scene, plot relevance be damned. In Super 8, these are aggravated by the fact that they tend to take the form of the alien attacking some unfortunate minor character. It's hard to sympathize with a creature who randomly kills a convenience store clerk, a utility worker, the town sheriff, and a housewife, curlers still in her hair.
Sadly, the gratuitously murderous nature of the Super 8 alien isn't even close to its biggest shortcoming vis-a-vis its bulbous headed inspiration. Not only did E.T. never kill anybody, he spent a lot of the movie actually on camera. By contrast, the Super 8 alien is barely in the movie. IMDb trivia has it at three minutes up on screen, which seems generous since most of the time all the audience sees is a blurry CGI arm in the background. Even at the end, it's mostly shown in shadow as an indistinct collection of insect limbs and leathery skin.
This is is 1h:16m into a 1h:51m runtime, the monster is that blurry gray thing. No, the other one.
This is a fatal failure for a movie aimed so squarely at nostalgia. Truly classic movies have iconic scenes or characters, images that are recognizable on a t-shirt or a poster decades after the fact. The Goonies has Sloth and the underground pirate ship; Explorers has a flying tilt-a-whirl; E.T. has Elliot pedaling his bike in front of the Moon, the glowing finger, and the friendly yet outer space visage of E.T. himself. Super 8 has no defining image, just a bloodthirsty alien who appears to audiences as little more than an animated blob of shiny pixels.
Because the creature itself is generic and so rarely in the film, the human characters have to fill out most of the runtime, and here, too, we can see Super 8's imitative deficiencies. E.T. is basically the story of a boy and his two siblings who meet a friendly alien. Along the way they get help from three of his older brother's teenage friends, and there's a lightly touched upon subplot about their mom having recently been left by their dad.
Super 8 opens with the death of the main kid's mother, and involves his dad (a sheriff's deputy), his would be girlfriend, and said girl's father (a soppy drunk). There's also a motley collection of the main kid's friends: the cowardly kid, the pyromaniac kid, and the obligatory fat kid, plus a slew of others, including the Hot Sister, the Stoner Guy, and more, all of whom get minor speaking roles. These literal busloads of barely named faces get into a whole range of incidental subplots, including a romantic triangle, catharsis about the mom's death, and two separate father-child reconciliation stories.
(There's also some Air Force guys, the commander of whom is the ostensible villain, but they're only in the movie slightly more than the CGI blob they're chasing. Finally, there's a black science teacher who (natch) dies first.)
To Abrams' credit, all these loose threads manage to tie roughly together, but that he chose a thicket of barely explored interpersonal drama over actually showing the alien speaks volumes. In E.T., we see what a curious and kind little alien he is; in Super 8, we get two separate characters telling us that the monster is scared and homesick in between scenes of it killing and abducting people. Two hours of screen time is enough for "alien with a heart of gold" or "intricate small town drama", not both, and the alien story got very short shrift.
The movie's title comes from a different subplot about the kids making a horror flick on 8mm "Super 8" film cameras, and by far the film's most charming moment comes over the credits when we get to see their 5-minute long effort, complete with bad zombie makeup, choppy sound, film grain, and jarring cuts. It's cute, and the child cast is solid from top to bottom, but it's pretty much the only time the kids get to act like actual kids.
For most of the movie, they have to act like adult stand-ins because, in another critical imitative flaw, Super 8 is a movie for adults that happens to be about kids. This was Abrams' explicit intention, one he mentioned repeatedly during publicity: to make a film about his years as a teenage Super 8 camera geek. That's fine for him, but a problem for the audience since that's a very narrow band of nostalgia.
When Super 8 was released in 2011, only a bare majority of the entire population could even remember 1979, and none of it included the people in the sweet, sweet movie going demographics between 12 and 24. Period pieces are all well and good, and it can help to have a more considered perspective than to simply set a film in current times. But to the 2011 equivalents of the 1979 movie geeks Abrams was portraying, Super 8's focus on small town relationships makes the movie little more than a live action version of someone's parent's photo album.
It's the critical difference between a movie people still love three decades later and a forgettable summer facsimile. Where E.T. is clearly for kids, and just also happens to be a great movie that adults love, Super 8 is a movie for the adults those kids grew up to become rather than the children they once were. For Abrams it was a fun trip down memory lane. (On the commentary, he mentions how weird it was to see all these kids on the set dressed the same way he and his friends had been dressed back in the 70s.) For most of his audience, however, it was a glimpse into a past that had been portrayed better at the time.
Continue to Chapter 5 - Star Trek 12: Hacktacular!