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SUPER 8 - Why It Underplayed [A Pit Of Horror Commentary] -- [Posted 23 July 2011]

The movie had the markings of the summer 2011 runaway smash hit. A brilliantly vague months-early ad campaign that only hinted at what it was about; a Steven Spielberg production credit; script and direction by sci-fi "It Boy" J.J. Abrams; an eerie "hide the creature" trailer with an atmosphere that harkened back to old-school 1970s fare; and a remarkably inexpensive $50 million budget for a film of this stature, which seemed guaranteed to net a gargantuan final payday. Super 8 had it all going for it, even largely positive reviews at its opening. But at the six-week mark, it's had a swift pull from most cinemas with less than $124 million in box office receipt?

So what went wrong?

To cite the picture itself would be a mistake. Super 8 is a fine sci-fi/suspense film which delivers on every level it sells in its trailers. It is 1979 and in Lillian, Ohio, twelve-year-old Joe Lamb (superbly played by Joel Courtney) has recently lost his mother in work-related accident. His deputy sheriff father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) loves his son but has distanced himself emotionally. He offers Joe an opportunity to attend a summer baseball camp which is sure to be enjoyable. Joe is no fool and realizes that it's just his father's attempt to push him aside while they both deal with their grief. Since the opening title card didn't include a credits sequence, I was quietly wondering whether or not the music was by John Williams; it wasn't, but Michael Giacchino's score was majestic and very Williams-esque in places.

Joe's friends are his overweight pal Charles (Riley Griffiths), who owns a Super 8 camera and is currently shooting a zombie short movie, in hopes of entering it into a film festival. Their cohorts are the quick-to-squeal Preston (Zach Mills), the vomit-prone Martin (Gabriel Basso) and the firebug Cary (Ryan Lee). These kids practically finish each other's sentences in their rapid-fire conversations, endlessly say "shit" and "damn," and occasionally drive cars illegally. The acting chemistry amongst this troupe alone makes for an entertaining movie.

A young lass named Alice (Elle Fanning) has been enlisted as an actress on the clandestine shoot, especially since she also has access to a car in which she can convey them to and from the shooting location. Everything goes according to plan, except that a late-night shoot at a quiet train station is interrupted by an oncoming locomotive, which is then derailed by a barrell-assing pick-up truck. The truck is driven by science teacher Mr. Woodward (Glynn Turman) from the kids' own school. It's a spectacular sequence, and once it's over, the injured teacher's wild gesturing with a high-caliber revolver will have you questioning his motives, too.

Once Super 8 really gets on its feet and running, Woodward seems less crazy, and insta-villain Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich) quickly shakes the "is he good or bad" hunch and reveals himself to be quite the bad guy. Character actor Ron Eldard also turns in a subdued but important performance as a key figure to Jackson Lamb's emotional struggle and ultimate redemption. And E.T. even gets a nod as Joe discovers an avenue to possibly communicate with the seemingly-malevolent creature behind all the confusion and military-led mayhem that engulfs Lillian.

All the pieces were in place, including plenty of "want-see" from the public. So again, what impeded Super 8 from holding its own against the typically competitive summer box office, which was much kinder to immediate competitors Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class and the inevitable Cars 2?

An immediate thought would be its very "dated" nature for a high-end FX-heavy summer movie. While viewers in my age bracket would likely feel right at home in a quiet Ohio township where General Motors' muscle cars still prowled the roads and cellular phones or Ipods are nowhere to be seen, the low-tech setting may not have resonated with some of today's ticket-buying demographic. When a movie ends with a "Written and Directed by...." title card accompanied by Electric Light Orchestra's "Don't Bring Me Down" as an end theme, guys my age cheer and sing along. Younger viewers may have wished for a continuation of the wistful Giacchino cue which occurred moments before, or maybe a contemporary techno-metal mashup. Just no ELO.

Early reviews of Super 8 noted it that harkened back to early Spielberg; Close Encounters Of The Third Kind kept getting mentioned, and for good reason. Abrams, who knocked the ball out of the park and into warp speed with his 2009 Star Trek feature, has now made a perfect movie for the generation populated by 35-65 year olds. We've still got that tingle for downhome sci-fi with a few new visual "How'd-they-do-thats" we hadn't seen before, plus some groovy tunes on the soundtrack that remind us what it feels like to be young. "My Sharona" by The Knack, anyone? Maybe that's why Super 8 works on at least one particular and important level.

And if certain segments of a younger demographic would kindly unplug their Ipods, set aside their text-phones and actually pay attention to what's happening on the screen, they just might get the drama, too, and embrace it. I'm just sayin'.

'SUPER 8' A Film by J.J. ABRAMS.
Written and Directed by J.J. Abrams.

[DISCUSS ON OUR FORUMS] [Review By Petch Lucas]

Super 8

YEAR: 2011



RUN TIME 115 minutes (US)