My thoughts on Super 8 actually help me finally articulate my thoughts on Lost, and the later seasons of Alias, and pretty much everything JJ Abrams has ever done. In general, I like stories, and I like characters, and I like those things to make sense. That doesn't always apply - I can very happily enjoy something that's aiming for out and out batshittery, like Legion. I can turn my brain off at a summer blockbuster or a mindless, crowd-pleasing Broadway musical and just enjoy the pretty colors. But Super 8, while partly a summer blockbuster, clearly aspires to be more, with its loving period detail and cast of really pretty great characters (the kids reminded me so much of It, I kind of wished I were watching them in a remake of that instead).
What Abrams tends to do, in my opinion, is go "Hey, isn't this neat? Who cares if it makes any sense? It's so cool! Why do you want to know what it means?" And this drives me nuts. Which is not to say that I need every question answered all the time (I actually quite liked the finale of Lost...though maybe that's just because I was happy it was over). I like a little mystery, and one of the things I liked about Super 8 was the ambiguity of the ending, which (trying not to get to too spoilery here) lacked any sort of "5 months later" coda to show how fighting a monster had fixed everyone's relationships or whatever. I like how there wasn't a big scene that explained everything in a monologue by Dr. Exposition. I actually would have preferred if we never saw a scene without one of the kids in it, since filling in things outside of their point of view took away some of the fun of watching them discover things for me. In all of these movies, the buildup to the monster, with its little glimpses and slow reveals (which I thought Abrams did beautifully here), almost always makes seeing it in full a let down.
But that said, the entire film felt like one big macguffin. What were the cubes? Why was he stealing microwaves? Why did the tanks start shooting? Doesn't matter, it's just cool. It wouldn't have bothered me if it had all been just mysterious background stuff, but Abrams actually worked very hard to give all of these things such weight, only to have them be essentially meaningless. It's one thing to have an audience go, "Huh, did you see the monster pause and look longingly at that oil rig? I wonder what that's about?" It's another to say to them, "LOOK AT THIS! THIS IS IMPORTANT! The props department spent a lot of time on this but nobody really knows what it does but TAKE A LONG LOOK BECAUSE IT'S SO COOL!"
Even the title is sort of a macguffin, which the ad campaign played into, which made me feel a little like I was sold a bill of goods. Again, it's a weight issue. We're led to believe that it's a REALLY BIG DEAL that the kids get film of the train wreck and the monster. But it sort of isn't. By the time they get the film developed (a dose of period reality which I did quite like), they - and we - have already seen the monster and even had it largely explained to them through other means. The grown-ups already know something is up. No one needs to be blackmailed with the footage, and the bad guys don't even know they have it. It makes literally no difference at all to the story (the monster story anyway) that these kids are making a movie or that the camera was rolling during the crash. None.
After the movie I was spinning theories and Boy said, "What has JJ Abrams done to you??" I don't know, but I can tell you it involved a Rambaldi device and some ice cream.
I did quite like the smaller movie that was contained within this movie, about these kids making their film and being kids. And like I said, I liked when the mystery was mysterious because they didn't know what was going on. I would have liked more of that, which I thought the trailer sort of promised. (The Abrams-produced Cloverfield, with it's found footage conceit, actually did this perfectly; if our protagonists don't know it, neither do we.) If the movie had centered around the film of the wreck, instead of "Hey, look over there, it's a monster!" I think I would have been much happier.
And as much as I liked those characters, it became hard to care because the stakes felt so low. For all the explosions and
One more dig at JJ Abrams before I move on to nice things: WTF lens flare?? It didn't bother me in Star Trek; In fact, I barely noticed it until people started talking about it, because it seemed to make sense in that world. But it made NO sense here. It was sometimes so far removed from its light source that I just stared at it instead of whatever I was supposed to be looking at. Please find a visual trademark that is less annoying.
I really did quite like the performances, and the way the kids' friendships and interactions felt so real. It was refreshing to see teenagers played by real teenagers (though I guess these characters are much younger than the typical TV late-high-school teen too). I hope Joel Courtney becomes a big star, and I'm now totally in love with Elle Fanning. I wish Kyle Chandler had had more to do.
I sometimes love Michael Giacchino's music (Alias, The Incredibles) and sometimes not (shut up, Lost, with your Horn Bleats of Importance), and I really liked his work here. It didn't overpower and there were some cute homages to ET, Close Encounters and Star Wars (there were probably others I didn't catch).
Lens flares aside, I liked the look of the movie, which felt both totally real (not that I lived in a small town in 1980, so what do I know?) and like a nice nod to the movies of the filmmakers' (and my) youth.
I did enjoy myself. It's a fun night out. I just wish it had been more of the movie I expected. And I think my love for the first season of Alias (and, okay, I'll say it, Felicity) has led me to be excited for and then disappointed by everything JJ Abrams has done since. Is there a statute of limitations on that feeling? Because my goodwill should probably have run out by now. (See also, Joss Whedon.)
UPDATE: It has been pointed out that JJ Abrams wasn't really responsible for Lost. And no, he didn't run the show, but he is a producer who picks things that match his own style, and puts his stamp on them. By directing the pilot he set the tone and the style for the series. Using a composer I associate almost exclusively with him did the same. The same is true of Cloverfield. So I stand by my assessment!