Dir. J.J. Abrams
(2011, PG-13, 115 min)

Comparisons between Super 8 and E.T. The Extraterrestrial are apt, but mostly as an observation of how summer entertainment has changed in the last thirty years. I don’t think E.T. would have been made in 2011, not in the form we all know. It would have to look more like Super 8, which is to say the following changes would have to be made: (1) the alien would have to be bigger, uglier, composed with CGI, and leap into the frame for big whooshing gotcha effects. (2) There would have to be more explosions. A lot more explosions. If you think you have just enough explosions, add a few more. Movie audiences won’t stand for a summer movie where something isn’t blowing up all the time … except E.T. of course.

I keep wanting to like a film by J.J. Abrams, but this will not be the first. He’s done great work on television (including Lost, whose pilot episode remains his best work as a director), but his feature film efforts have been tepid (Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek). Super 8 seemed more promising; it was promoted as a return to Spielberg-style enchantment (Spielberg is a producer), but really it’s just Cloverfield with kids: there’s a monster of some kind seen in quick flashes that terrorizes the populace and a group of friends who walk into the line of fire to save a girl. I wonder if Abrams sensed that the design of his creature wasn’t quite up to snuff; he keeps it hidden for a while, and the more we see of it the less interesting it gets.

Producer Steven Spielberg and director J.J. Abrams

The film starts as a family story. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is a boy who has just lost his mother in a mill accident. His father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), is a stern sheriff’s deputy with whom he has trouble connecting. He and his friends are making a zombie movie in the hopes of entering it into an amateur film festival, but during production they witness a train derailment, and this is an early indication of the film’s creative direction because it’s not just a derailment but a train apocalypse. Cars fly everywhere. Fireballs erupt. There’s even a container labeled “explosive” that exists for the sole purpose of exploding. Rube Goldberg couldn’t have devised a more elaborately catastrophic event.

One of the actresses in the zombie film is the reluctant Alice (Elle Fanning), whose father (Ron Eldard) has a drinking problem and wants nothing to do with the Lambs. Fanning gives the most affecting performance; her relationship with Joe is the most fully developed of the film, though her father remains mostly a tragic, alcoholic cliché throughout. But eventually the film seems to lose interest in its characters, who are half-heartedly drawn in the first place. Consider: in E.T. the intervening government agent was played by Peter Coyote, who imbued his role with care and ambivalence, but here a similar character is played by Noah Emmerich as a stock villain.

Then, for what seems like the last thirty or forty minutes, stuff blows up. A lot. Military tanks and weapons malfunction for no other reason than to create a lot of noise, action, and danger for the characters to stumble around in. It becomes tiresome very quickly because Abrams doesn’t build much suspense, just strings together jump scenes and pyrotechnics. I was reminded of Monsters, the ultra-low-budget indie film about an alien invasion that invested in characters and then showed us the creatures in a moment of wonder. Super 8, though a relative bargain at $50 million, cost one-hundred times more to produce than Monsters but is markedly less satisfying. I theorized a couple of years ago that big Hollywood budgets and low Hollywood standards are the enemies of science-fiction. This is an object lesson.