“Super 8”: A slightly out-of-focus “Goonies” wannabe

Tom Loftus

The 1980s ushered in a new era of teen-centric movies, films about young love, scary monsters and boys just being boys, films that – unlike the big “teen” movies of the 1970s – were populated with actual adolescents. 

While the ‘70s had “teen” movies like “American Graffiti” (1973), starring 26-year-old Richard Dreyfuss,  Cindy Williams (26) and Harrison Ford (31); “Grease” (1978), with leads John Travolta (24) and Olivia-Newton John (30); and “Animal House” (1978), featuring Tom Hulce (25), John Belushi (29), Tim Mathewson (31) and Mark Metcalf (32), the ‘80s broke new ground – thanks in large part to directors Steven Spielberg, John Hughes and Joe Dante – with blockbuster films starring actors who were still using Clearasil.

“Super 8,” the new film written and directed by J. J. Abrams (who directed the 2009 reboot of “Star Trek”) and produced by Spielberg, the iconic director of “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” (1982), is set in 1979, and desperately wants to be this decade’s “E.T.”, “Gremlins” (1984) and “The Goonies” (1985), all rolled into one.  And while all the ingredients are there, and while its young cast is likable and even occasionally memorable, the movie ultimately sinks under the weight of trying too hard to look like a summer movie classic, rather than actually be one.

Like “The Goonies” and “E.T.,” “Super 8” does feature a cast comprised of real-life teens.  Joel Courtney, who stars as 12-year-old zombie movie-making Joe Lamb, is 15, and looks like a cross between Elijah Wood as Frodo in “Lord of the Rings” and a wide-eyed Henry Thomas from “E.T.”  Gabriel Basso, as Martin, the “leading man” of Joe’s movies, is 16, and with his oversized eyeglasses and tightened jaw, he looks eerily like Corey Haim as “Lucas” (1986).

Elle Fanning, who plays zombie movie “leading lady” Alice Dainard, and is also the object of Joe’s shy affections, is mature beyond her 13 years, not unlike Martha Plimpton and Kerri Green in “The Goonies.”  And braces-wearing Ryan Lee, 14, who contributes some of the movie’s funniest scenes as “lead zombie” Cary, is a dead ringer for Tom Fergus as Claude in the little-seen but often-praised 1979 teens-run-amok film “Over the Edge.”

Riley Griffiths, 14, who plays Joe’s best friend Charles, the zombie film’s director, and Zach Mills, 15, the zombie film’s nerdy lighting supervisor, also look and sound like the teens that they really are.  The cast talks quickly, with overlapping dialogue that is an obvious nod to “The Goonies,” and makes childlike plans – like sneaking out of the house at midnight to film a scene for their zombie movie – that have the innocent feel of the kids in “The Sandlot” (1993) trying to get the Babe Ruth-signed baseball back from “the beast,” or the four boys in “Stand By Me” (1986) setting out in search of a dead body.

And if “Super 8” had half of the originality, witty dialogue, authentic feel or genuine suspense of those two films, or if its “monster” had been conceived anywhere near as well as the devious little fiends in “Gremlins” or the oppressed Prawns in “District 9” (2009), it might have been well on its way to being something really special.

But there are problems.

The train crash that sets up the main storyline of “Super 8” is so obviously done with digital effects as to be laughable; it wants to a cross between the circus train crash in “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952) and the prison train crash in “The Fugitive” (1993), but instead, it feels like the ludicrous out-of-control avalanche of vehicles, logs and boulders in the Nicolas Cage film “Next” (2007).  At least in that movie, Cage could keep others from harm by seeing into the future.  When the dust clears after the “Super 8” train wreck, and its teen cast emerges with nary a scratch, the movie immediately loses any sense of plausibility it might have had.

Sloppy filmmaking is also evident in the surprising number of anachronisms that can be easily spotted.  An alien device is compared to a Rubik’s Cube, but it is 1979, and Rubik’s Cubes were not available until 1980.  A gas station attendant – in a scene ripped off from 1997’s “Grosse Pointe Blank” – is oblivious to the world around him as he “jams” to music coming from the Walkman he is wearing; only problem is, Walkmans didn’t hit the U.S. until June 1980.  A space shuttle model in a teen’s bedroom is from 1982; a Star Wars model is from 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Still, all of those details could be overlooked if the script was strong and the story had a worthwhile payoff. 

It’s not, and it doesn’t.

Like “Jaws” (1975) – which Spielberg famously is said to have agreed to direct on one condition: that he didn’t have to reveal the shark in the first reel – the monster in “Super 8” is just a tease for the first half of the film.  Unfortunately, similar to the alien in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” (2004), by the time we see the “Super 8” monster, it is almost anticlimactic.  And without giving away any key plot points, it is one of the most underwhelming, least-developed movie villains in recent memory.

Meanwhile, while the interactions between the teens seem natural and are occasionally fun, the overarching plot points of the evil military, the disapproving adults and the bumbling sheriff’s department are like something out of the kind of “B” movie that director Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) would have come up with in “Matinee” (1993).

The Starplex Stadium 14 in Normal, Ill., along with the Muvico 18 in Rosemont, Ill., are the only two Illinois cinemas among 80 nationwide that are offering “Super 8” with the added element of the new D-Box simulators for selected shows.  For an extra $10, you can sit in a specially designed “motion simulator” chair that moves, vibrates and shakes in conjunction with the action taking place on screen.

After experiencing “Super 8” in D-Box at the Normal theater last Friday evening, I can only say that, like the movie itself, the hype did not live up to the result.  Like 3-D, D-Box will not make a mediocre movie great, and can, in fact, start to feel more and more like a gimmick (rather than an enhancement) as the film lumbers on.

The best part of “Super 8” actually occurs after the movie has technically ended; the kids’ zombie movie, which rolls during the closing credits, was quirky, original and worth the price of admission.  It’s a shame the same can’t be said for “Super 8.”

Rating:  ** (two stars)