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The super produced, super bad SUPER 8

SUPER 8: All production value and no heart.

It’s been almost twenty years since Steven Spielberg directed E.T., probably about the same length of time that J.J. Abrams, who was sixteen at the time, has been a fan. Now, with a decade of directing experience under his belt beginning with “Felicity” in 1999 and including a few stabs at Spielberg-esqueness like MISSON IMPOSSIBLE III and STAR TREK, Abrams finally got his chance to make a direct Spielberg homage – with Spielberg’s blessing (and a producer credit), no less. Like E.T, SUPER 8 stars a young boy growing up in a small town who gets involved with an alien stuck on Earth against his will, trying desperately to get home. Unlike E.T., it lacks all the heart and tales of love, bonding and friendship at the core of Spielberg’s best work, no matter how Hollywood they may be.

SUPER 8 follows a group of boys who, like both Abrams and Spielberg, spend their childhood days making movies on Super 8 film. Martin, Cary and Joe, our protagonist, team up to help Charles, their film buff friend, make a zombie-thriller to submit to a local film festival. He casts pretty blonde Alice (Elle Fanning – perhaps the only good thing this movie has going for it) so that he might flirt with her on set. Why these four boys (there are actually five, but Preston inexplicably disappears from the action half way through) are friends is hard to say. We never see them say a kind word to one another. Instead they fight, argue, intimidate, threaten, berate and curse at each other. This isn’t the all-in-good-fun kind of teasing we see in a group of real friends in a movie like THE GOONIES, for example; It’s just plain mean. Only between Joe and Alice do we ever see anything akin to kindness and real caring.

Also unlike THE GOONIES or E.T., SUPER 8 makes use of CG special effects that are downright gratuitous. When a train derails it doesn’t just run off the tracks, it explodes off of them, tunneling through the surrounding digital landscape in an impossible, apocalyptic fury of crashing metal. This particular scene goes on for so long it becomes laughable, so much so that it might easily veer into camp if it didn’t look so darn expensive. However, there are more than a few legitimately campy moments, and I was honestly surprised that a Spielberg devotee chose not the earnest, heartfelt route but the easy laugh. When the boys hitch a ride from a teenager they eventually have to take over the wheel because he gets too stoned. From the backseat the wimpy Martin cries, “Oh my god guys, drugs are so bad!”

After what seems like an endless sequence of running around town, Joe finally confronts the aforementioned alien, who’s much larger and angrier than E.T and has barricaded itself in a huge underground cave where it hides its stash of hypnotized human prey. Joe eventually gets chased into a corner where he appeals to the alien’s sensitive side in an attempt to save himself and his friends. So far the alien has done nothing but wreck cars and eat people like crudités, but Joe has only to say – hey, it’s cool man, I get you – and the alien makes as sympathetic a brown mucus-y face can make and lets him live. More improbable still is that the huge team of special effects artists working on this movie made an alien as boring and generic looking as this one. It’s big and slick, a sort of part-spider, part-INDEPENDENCE DAY alien type who storms around like any monster we’ve seen a million times over. If SUPER 8 didn’t seem to want to take itself more seriously I’d happily dismiss it as a perfectly acceptable piece of over-produced camp, but as it sincerely strives to be something more it’s only too easy to dismiss it as just unbearably bad, even if all you expect is a two hour air-conditioned reprieve from a hot summer afternoon.