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Super 8 – ET with attitude and the dogs leg it



Super 8 – J.J.Abrams 

A Starbucks movie: all the ingredients; efficiently served hot; looks good; tastes ok in an anonymous kind of way; guaranteed quality; and absolutely predictable – it just tastes nothing like real coffee.

Sacrilegious though it may be: is Spielberg a good enough director to warrant this kind of derivative homage? Ok like everyone on the planet I confess to liking ET in spite of its Spielbergian sentimentality. ET transcended its inherent mawkishness with an irresistible charm; derived largely from the instinctively innocent playing of its likeable young cast. This is the worthwhile quality common to many Spielberg films that Abrams has captured in Super 8. Unfortunately for me, there is a persistent lack of imagination in his master’s oeuvre which disciple Abrams emulates only too well here: as writer and director. The appeal of Spielberg’s little-boy-who-never-grew-upism began to pall for me somewhere between Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park. Apart from perhaps Minority Report, his efforts at grown up movies have been consistently mediocre, including an execrable War Of The Worlds referenced here by more than Dakota Fanning’s sister Elle.

Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are engaging enough as Joe and Alice, the ‘do-we-fancy-each-other?’ newly adolescent couple helping chubby Charles (Riley Griffiths) to shoot his competition entry Zombie movie with a sparky Ryan Lee, all mouth and retainer, and a couple of other mates. Think Invasion Of The Body Snatchers with a lot of red ink. These charming chums, a bit like mid-Potterish wizards without wands, get into all kinds of scrapes and adventures when they witness an apocalyptic train wreck while filming at smalltown Lillian Ohio rail station.

Blondie’s Heart of Glass on a gas station attendant’s new-fangled Walkman, firmly plants the action in 1979. Running for their lives to escape the wreck the young filmmakers drop their camera which carries on recording the events that follow. Joe sees that the wreck is no accident as a truck turns on to the track and hits the train head on. This is the kind of scene that Spielberg and now Abrams excel at: meticulous multi-camera planning, thrilling heart-racing editing and carefully judged special effects brilliantly combining with breathless and breath-taking results.

Alice and the gang discover that the instigator of the crash amazingly, and I mean miraculously on the scale of improbability, has survived to utter doom-laden warnings that everyone’s gonna die. As these ominous portents are voiced by their 3rd grade Biology teacher Mr Woodward, their authenticity is clearly beyond doubt. When something bashes its way out of a solid steel railcar and scarpers terrifyingly, but unseen into the night, the credibility of Mr Woodward’s dire predictions no longer rest solely on his degree in Science.

Joe’s Deputy Sheriff dad (an obstinately wooden Kyle Chandler) finds himself side-lined within hours of the crash by an invasion of military men and materi-ell only just adequate to invade Baghdad. Odd things begin to happen: all the town dogs disappear to nearby States; and connoisseurs of disaster movies will know there is no more infallible sign of impending disaster than when the dogs leg it. The Sheriff and the Blondie-loving gas station attendant are dragged off to an unknown fate with much rolling of the eyes.

Abram’s way with emotion like Spielberg’s, is as subtle as a campanologist – if it’s there, wring it out: thus Joe’s mum has recently been tragically killed covering a shift that Alice’s dad was too boozed to get up for. Dads falling out: kids falling in. After a row with dad busily drowning his self-contempt with Kentucky’s finest, Alice is dragged off to the same unknown fate as the Sheriff, the gas station attendant and the inimitable voice of Debbie Harry.

Many nefarious, largely pointless dirty deeds ensue mostly perpetrated by the tight- and stiff upper- lipped military. They render the local High School short-staffed by one Biology teacher because poor old Mr Woodward won’t shut up; do a lot of very photogenic flame-throwing; and as military men in movies tend to – blow a lot of things up.

An old video of Mr Woodward reveals to the kids the backstory and we are considerably less than astonished. WhileET just wanted to borrow a mobile phone to call an inter-stellar cab, this Monster Muncher is building his own out of scrap metal and an old water tower. Picking up on a deeply abstruse reference to ‘subterranean’ Joe puts one and one together and finds MM hiding away in a black hole which is for no apparent reason, under a garage floor. Much Indiana-ish running about in caves before we find a la War Of The Worlds Alice, the Sheriff et al hanging around, upside down in MM’s lair waiting their turn to become lunch. The gas station guy must have been breakfast as we don’t hear another peep from Debbie Harry.

In Catch-22 in WW2 airman Yossarian decides he doesn’t want to fly any more missions – he just wants to go home. When asked why he says “because they’re trying to kill me”. In a moment of deep emotional insight Joe concludes this is the only reason MM is eating people and scaring the sh*t out of the Lillian dog population and if we show him we understand this he’ll stop. It’s touch and go: we might allow him the odd human snack but scaring the dogs is hard to forgive.

In a new found sense of galactic rapport, as Joe watches his ugly chum lift off in his converted water tower to boldly return from whence he came, in the Spielberg “aaaaaahhhhhh” moment, he donates a precious memento of his mum to the magnetic hull of the spaceship. I’m sorry but it is hard not to laugh at this point.

Up to a point this is all entertaining enough as long as you switch your brain off. One suspects it’s set in 1979 so we can all smugly accept that back then people really were this stupid. We are never told why the alien is being moved, still less why his railcar is just one of about 30 approaching a country station with unmanned gates at a speed that looks like an attempt at a new world land speed record. We are told MM only wants to get home which makes one wonder why he roams the countryside wasting spaceship-building time and energy killing and eating any random human morsels he can find. In fact this super-intelligent being, and turning an old water tower and a bunch of fridges into a spaceship is a pretty neat trick, just keeps doing dumb things, none of which furthers his aim of getting away. ET was articulate and behaved intelligently as a superior being ought to do.

At least ET had a coherent narrative. It made sense that the kids first befriended and then protected the little munchkin. Abrams’ alien is all munch and no kin.

But I’m in a minority family-wise on this one.

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