Super 8

You have to hand it to J.J. Abrams. The guy knows how to get audiences to see a film. Especially one that doesn’t have an A-list (or even a B-List) cast, a deliberately obscured plot, and a teaser trailer that does just that (sad that a teaser has to be praised for doing its job, but alas, these are the times we live in). Super 8 stole the top spot at the box office this weekend with $35.5 million, ousting the star-studded and heavily promoted X-Men: First Class. Studio execs take note: when releasing a movie, mystery works.

Before Super 8 began I saw the trailers for Cowboys and Aliens, Transformers 3, and the second part (ugh) of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There’s a void that all three of these films lack that Super 8 fulfills: a sense of adventure. Movies are too often concerned with action set-pieces (summer blockbusters in particular) that they forget to add in a sense of mystery or wonder between these sequences. They don’t really have characters; they have agents that guide us from one action scene to the next. Summer blockbusters are more and more resembling Disneyland rides rather than actual films (no wonder Pirates of the Caribbean is so successful).

All you have to know about the film is that the main characters are children (all unknown actors, at least to me) who are making a Super 8 zombie movie (hence the title). There’s something enchanting about their efforts to realize their dreams through celluloid and it’s amusing when the mysterious events that are affecting their town are taken advantage of to increase the “production value” of their movie. Had this film been set in the present day, rather than the 1970s, much of the charm would’ve been lost. The kids would’ve shot in front of a green screen in a garage, rather than on location with swarms of military officials and a steaming train wreckage in the background.

The weakness of the film is in the third act. The mystery is revealed and…it’s a bit deflating. J.J. Abrams has an excellent TED talk (that many have probably already seen) in which he discusses a “Mystery Box” he bought as a teen and has never opened. He extols the virtues of mysteries, and the way he promotes his films (and the writing of television shows like Lost) are indicative of those beliefs. Which is why I find it frustrating when his films reveal the mystery (isn’t that going against what he preaches?). The events of Super 8 are explained in the film’s final reel when the heroes discover a recording and a film canister that explains all. I wish they had never found it, and that we were kept in the dark about what the “monster” really was.

Super 8 is like a magic trick. For two-thirds of the film we want to know the reason behind it all. But the most interesting part of a magic trick is not knowing how it is done. Once a magician reveals his secrets, his allure and gift disappear. That’s what happens in the third act, and by that point, you’ll wish the military, monster, and sinister secrets would go away so the film could get back to what’s really interesting: a behind-the-scenes look at a Super 8 zombie movie.

Grade: B+

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