By Jasmine Maharisi, Editor-in-Chief
“Super 8,” the new sci-fi thriller written and directed by J.J. Abrams, has a lot going for it. It’s set in the 70s, a decade ripe for funky styles and awesome music. Its plot features a conspiracy involving the U.S. Air Force and a whistle-blowing scientist. And Elle Fanning, Dakota’s darling younger sister, stars as a moody teenager victim to circumstances beyond her control.
It’s got the formula, too: lots of explosions, eardrum-bursting sounds, a love story, a grieving teenager, a group of coming-of-age friends and a cop left to save an entire town (and possibly an entire planet) from extinction. But it lacks originality. Big time.
It goes like this: a group of teens (Joel Courtney, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Riley Griffiths, Gabriel Basso, Elle Fanning) kick-off the summer of ’79 by working on their movie, a detective/horror/zombie flick shot on 8 mm film. While “on location” at an abandoned building near the town’s train tracks, the crew witnesses a train derailment. As the confused and terrified group runs for cover, the film continues reeling, capturing the magnificent disaster in its entirety.
As it turns out, the train was carrying some heavy-duty, top-secret cargo, and the leakage was enough to cause the U.S. Air Force to promptly secure the area to contain and clean the mess. Meanwhile, a chain of extraterrestrial events reak havoc on the town, causing inexplicable disappearances (including a mass exodus of family dogs, later found in nearby counties) that leave everyone on edge.
That’s about the gist of it.
While some critics have praised the movie by saying it’s made of the same Spielberg substance that made 80s movies so incredible (E.T., Goonies), I was less than impressed. The main reason why Spielberg’s films worked three decades ago was because they were fresh, new, with plot lines and characters portrayed in ways we’d never seen before. I’m sorry, but a persecuted alien telepathically communicating with a group of teens isn’t new in 2011. In fact, there isn’t much that is new anymore except the art of storytelling, a concept Hollywood just can’t seem to grasp.
Don’t get me wrong, Abrams’ movie isn’t a complete waste of time. Its excessive action (just the train’s derailment, subsequent explosions and teens fleeing and screaming takes more than five minutes of the film) makes good, all-American entertainment. And the $50 million in production costs will not go unnoticed, especially when one considers how many vehicles were smashed and tossed about like toys during the movie.
Let’s not forget the acting, either. The last time I saw Elle Fanning she was playing Stephen Dorff’s lively 11-year-old daughter in Sofia Coppola’s fable “Somewhere.” In “Super 8,” Fanning is the daughter of the town bad boy, whose drinking problem is the core of – as we find out later – a major storm of events surrounding the main character, Joe. Like Dakota, Elle’s subtly becomes her, making her a graceful yet believable character as she opens herself to friendship, support and ultimately, love.
Another talent viewers would be wise to watch for is the awkward Cary, played by 14-year-old Ryan Lee (“Trick or Treat,” “Shorts”). While he doesn’t have nearly as many lines as he should, the potty-mouth youngster – and probably the cause behind the PG-13 rating – got more than a few hearty chuckles from the theater audience. Cary says (and proves) he enjoys “blowing shit up,” but his jester-like character contributes to the foundation – the very center – of what makes this movie work: a group of friends in the summer of their youth. Substitute any of the external events they face and you have a half-dozen blockbusters of summers past.
Although “Super 8” struck me as unbelievable and sensationalized, I think it has its audience. The box office proves it, too, as the movie raked in more than $37 million opening weekend. But for those like me who prefer a solid film with some serious substance, I give you this advice: wait until it’s available on Netflix.