What if a bunch of kids in 1979 were making a movie and they saw a massive train wreck? And what if the train were carrying some kind of mysterious menace? And what if the kids embarked on an adventure to discovery the mysterious menace, while being further menaced by menacing military madmen?
Now, what if Steven Spielberg happened to catch all this on film?
Or, okay, J. J. Abrams filmed it, which is sort of like Spielberg-plus-lens-flare.
Well, then you’d have something like Super 8, the modern day Goonies flick which seems to have registered a collective “meh”, given its pedigree. The Boy and The Flower both failed to register any enthusiasm for it, though they didn’t really complain, either. They didn’t have high expectations going in, and they weren’t disappointed or surprised.
The story is about a group of kids making a movie in 1979 on the titular film. Said film stock, by the way, is never referenced by name, so I imagined a substantial percentage of the audience saying, “Huh?” That is, if they paused to ask themselves what “Super 8” meant.
Anyway, the kids are shooting their film when there’s a train wreck right before their eyes (and camera). Throw in a mysterious, incoherent teacher injured in the wreck, strange noises, and menacing G-Men, and you got yourself a picture.
It’s well shot, of course, moves briskly, has some laughs, and the kids all carry off their acting duties. Special effects are good, too.
So why isn’t it boffo?
I have some theories, as you might expect.
First of all, in one of the early scenes, the fat director kid is explaining to the main character that he’s rewritten the script to have the cute chick in it because adding the character development will make the audience care what happens to the hero when he’s eaten by zombies.
So, we have this sub-plot where the main character’s mom dies and this is kinda-sorta the fault of the cute chick’s alcoholic dad, and the main character’s dad is a hardass, and there’s a love triangle, sorta, between the main character, the fat kid and the cute chick and…
Well, it all feels like they lampshaded it in that early scene. “Look, now we’re making you care about the characters!”
Sorta like the very first scene where the camera pans down (with dolorous music a-playing) to a factory, then cuts to the inside where a worker is solemnly taking down the counter from a “days since last accident” sign, to replace with a “1”. (At least, I hope it wasn’t a zero. That would be too much.)
Feels like an exercise from a screenplay writing handbook. Also, it conjures up a whole lot of humor. I think “Family Guy” and “The Simpson’s” both have done a gag like that. Pretty sure I’ve seen it in a “Far Side” cartoon. As a joke, I expect it goes back to WWII, or to whenever those signs were invented.
Little risky using that for your “telling the audience someone has died” serious moment.
The drama comes off as a by-the-numbers exercise.
It doesn’t help that the big dramatic connection between cute girl’s dad and hero’s mom’s death is really tenuous. I mean, when the big reveal came, I just kind of thought everyone was sort of stupid. I guess that’s not entirely unrealistic, but it wasn’t very involving.
The whole thing kind of comes off that way. A lot of near misses that sort of remind you of more successful endeavors. People are disappearing right and left, but the why of that isn’t really clear, for example.
Another thing: The climactic scene isn’t, very. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why they left a perfectly good opportunity for a suspenseful conclusion on the table. The kids are really barely involved with the final resolution of the story.
Which is just sort of weird.
There’s also no real resolution about the nature of the mysterious menace, in a moral sense. It also feels like a plug-in menace right out of a ‘50s sci-fi movie. You’re just supposed to fill-in-the-blanks, apparently.
Now, they nailed 1979. This was of little interest to the kids. But the lingo, hairstyles, clothing and technology was all pretty dead on. (There was a “bogus” and a “totally” which struck me as more ’80s, but that’s kind of splitting hairs.)
Like I said, it’s not bad. And if you’re not expecting the return of—I dunno, whatever, 1980s-era kiddie movie floats your boat (I pretty much hated all of them)—it’s a not unpleasant way to pass a couple of hours. Bonus points if you’ve got any 1979 nostalgia. (But if you do? You should be ashamed of yourself.)
Anyway, all three of us were, like, totally, “Yeah. OK. Not bad.”
So there ya have it.