There seems to be a near universal critical consensus on J.J. Abrams' Super 8 that the first two thirds of the film are wonderful and the last bit loses its way. I have to add my voice to the chorus--the first part of the film is wonderful. Sincere characterisations like you don't see anymore. The movie follows the adventures of a group of twelve year old boys. I remember remarking when I was ten years old that I wanted to be twelve because that was the age all the kids in the coolest kids' movies were.
There's certainly a lot of Spielberg homage in Super 8, especially in Abrams' economy of shots, turning close-ups into long shots the way Spielberg did, trying to cut as little as possible for transitions from reaction to subject. But Spielberg really only directed one kid adventure movie like this, E.T.. Jurassic Park as well, to a certain extent, and Super 8 certainly has a few Jurassic Park inspired moments, but Jurassic Park's not really from the period Abrams is paying homage to. E.T. probably got the ball rolling on a genre of films I remember eating like candy--Explorers, Flight of the Navigator, The Monster Squad, and almost all of Fred Savage's filmography.* It's among these films that Super 8 really belongs, particularly in that these kids are really written more like 16 year olds than 12 year olds. But that's perfect--kids don't want the real awkwardness and helplessness of that age in their movies. They want characters who are like them but who are a little more proactive, have little more control over their worlds. Here's a shot I like a lot;
Joe, the protagonist, is here visiting the slightly older Alice who lives with an abusive, alcoholic father. He's trying to convince her to continue participating in a film he's making with his friends when her father pulls up to the curb behind them--that's what he's looking at in the shot. Alice is small in the background, in the shade, showing her as already having been beaten down to fit into the world comprised of herself and her father. The low angle on Joe is like a hero shot, but he's a little kid, sticking out like a target, but his assertiveness in coming to see Alice puts him in a place of responsibility. The nail to be hammered down. Here's the beast, coming up on the porch, what are you going to do, hero?
Part of the reason the film loses its way in the last act is Alice's father abruptly finding redemption. I mean, it's fine Alice giving Joe some information that makes us sympathise with her father a little, but it would have been so much more effective if he was shown to actually be physically abusive to her and really lost in his self-pity. I know a lot of people would say that's too far for a kid's movie, but I'd say that's exactly as far as a lot of kids would need a movie to go.
Where was this Abrams when he made Star Trek? There's nothing like the cheap, broad glibness of Kirk eating an apple on the Kobayashi Maru test. It felt to me like every step of the way in Super 8, Abrams asked himself, "What would Spielberg do?" Though, whether he realised it or not, what he was really asking himself was, "What would the ideal Spielberg of my memory do?" I think he made good decisions in the first part of Super 8 that Spielberg may not have done.
The broad resolution for Alice's father is just one of the ways Super 8 loses its way, but I think the problems go back to the same fundamental reason--Abrams stopped asking himself what would ideal Spielberg do and started asking himself, "What ought I to do?" He obviously felt a need to tighten the focus on Joe, making him stand up to the threat by himself, giving him a pretty corny line at the climax to tie back to his earlier established hobby of train model making.** If the movie had been made more organically, the focus in the last portion would have shifted to Alice, who was in a place and was given knowledge pertaining to a solution before Joe was (look at me, being vague to avoid spoilers for once!).
One problem that's present throughout the film is the fucking lens flares. They look even more out of place outside of Star Trek. I get the feeling Abrams is using them out of spite at this point. I bet if Abrams ever does stop using them it'll be at the same time he starts making movies with bolder commitments to character.
The best scene in the movie is Joe putting zombie makeup on Alice. Partly I think it's Abrams' effectiveness at bringing us into this world of twelve year olds, partly it's Elle Fanning's excellent performance, but the fourteen year-old girl actually seemed older than me in this scene. Well, maybe the darkened cheeks helped a bit. The relationship between her and Joe is so tenderly, so smartly established, it's a joy to watch, and would by itself make the movie worth watching. The nice kid adventure aspect is welcome icing on the cake.
*Nothing sticks with me like Time Bandits, though, sort of the anti-kid adventure film. My mom rented it for me when I was a kid probably thinking it was just another of these and it freaked the hell out of me. Or maybe Empire of the Sun is more of a kid adventure film antithesis--I saw that as a kid and that freaked me out, too.
**"He's making a model."
"Really?" I thought, "Probably he ought to have made the real thing, don't you think?"