This will contain spoilers…
I had the same basic reaction to Super 8 as Renn and Nick. It’s a fun, well-made film that comes fairly close to being something really good but collapses in the second half due to an undercooked script that tries to get away with more than it has fairly earned. There are a lot of half ideas in the film. For example, all the dogs in town run away en masse. Abrams put this in the script to add spooky atmosphere and likely because he had that image in his mind of the bulletin board completely covered in lost dogs fliers. It’s a cute bit, and that’s a great image. But I was left wondering why. Not why the dogs ran away (that seems pretty obvious), but why only dogs ran away. Are the town’s cats still chillin’? What about birds and other animals? If only dogs fear the presence of the alien, then the why factor becomes more apropos. This is a minor issue, but one that is symptomatic of the script as a whole. I don’t think Abrams would say that only dogs fear the alien, yet I also don’t think he thought about this idea any farther than its surface level gimmick.
In the most recent issue of Creative Screenwriting, JJ Abrams had this telling quote: “It’s funny, when you see a little kid drawing a picture and they suddenly stop and they just know it’s done. That’s what I try to do, just feel that it is what it should be. It’s kind of a gut thing, there’s no rule. I’m sure I’m wrong more often that I’m right.” I think Abrams called it a bit prematurely on Super 8. I’d say he stopped writing at least two drafts too soon. It’s a little late now, but I’d like to offer up some script notes to Mr. Abrams. It would be both foolish and arrogant for me to say that these notes would necessarily have made the film better but I believe they certainly would have made it stronger narratively.
1) Get Rid of One of the Kids
There was one (maybe even two) too many kids for what Abrams was willing to do with them. This is evidenced by the fact that Abrams felt he needed to randomly bench most of them before the climax. First the cameraman kid stays behind at the military compound, then the director and the leading man are sidelined by a halfhearted injury bit. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, as Joe (Joel Courtney) is our protagonist after all, but if the boys weren’t going to rescue Alice (Elle Fanning) as a group, why does the explosives-loving kid get to help save the day? If only one other kid was going to join Joe in the climax, shouldn’t it have been the director kid? He was the most relevant of Joe’s friends, and the fact that a minor beef had arisen earlier between the two over Alice means that there would be at least some intrinsic emotional complexity to them rescuing her together. Personally, I would have liked to see all the boys involved with the climax. But it almost seems like Abrams got bored with some of them as the film progressed. They didn’t all need character arcs exactly, but Abrams kind of forgets them at the end. The closest we get to “resolutions” on the other boys is simply seeing that they finished their movie and entered it in that contest.
2) Show More of the Alien
Why do we never get a really good look at the alien? That shrouded-in-mystery-to-the-bitter-end shtick sorta worked in Cloverfield because it was a found-footage flick. But what is the point of it in Super 8? Spielberg wouldn’t have done it that way. This inherently prevents the film from being iconic. I couldn’t draw you a picture of the alien from Super 8. I could sorta get its face, and maybe general body position. But not very accurately. I’m trying to think of a classic creature feature that has that same problem, but I can’t. In the past if a movie seemed reluctant to let you get a good look at its monster it was because the monster suit looked terrible. Abrams is doing it on purpose. But why? I get doing the Jaws routine and not showing it for a while to build suspense. But why never give a clear view of it? Especially when your creature is of an unorthodox build, as Abrams’ beastie is. Concluding the film with so much mystery still surrounding the alien makes the whole movie feel about as significant as a clever card trick. And Abrams is obviously going for a lot more than a “Well, that was neat” reaction from us.
3) Make the Alien Either Scarier or Less Scary
I can respect that Abrams was attracted to an alien that was somewhere between E.T. and the shark from Jaws. Neither friend nor foe. Dangerous but not malicious. But it is harder to really make that kind of ambiguous monster work in any story, and Abrams’ overall story about Joe did not mix very effortlessly with the substory about the alien. There was no thematic tie between the two, though Abrams tried his best to imply a parallel in Act III — completely ignoring whether or not the moment when Joe monologues to the alien and teaches it a valuable lesson worked or was stupid or not, if we just look at that moment in movie math terms (what is essentially the = moment to a lot of + moments building up to it) things don’t add up. Joe and the alien aren’t fundamentally similar, so this bonding session doesn’t make sense, math-wise. It could also be seen that Joe is viewing the alien as his father; as the message of Joe’s speech is that shit happens sometimes and you gotta let it go and move on and stop being so angry (though this is a pretty prickish attitude, as both the alien and Joe’s father have extremely legit reasons to be so pissed off; the alien has been imprisoned for decades, and Joe’s mom has only been dead for six months) — Anyway, this is turning into more of a critique than a note. Point is, the alien only ever truly works when it is acting like a scary monster. But ultimately Super 8 isn’t a scary monster film. We are asked to empathize with the alien. Yet, despite its much hyped intellect, there is very little humanity we can glean from the creature. It’s no King Kong, which seems like the type of gray-area monster Abrams was going for. We needed more face time with the monster. It needed to be softened a little. Or the movie should have just gone full bore and dispensed with the “misunderstood and scared” angle, and given us Joe Dante’s E.T., about kids needing to defeat a rampaging malicious alien.
4) Give the Dads Something To Do in the Climax
Jack (Kyle Chandler) blames Louis (Ron Eldard) for the death of his wife, which in turn makes Louis pissed off at himself and everyone else. They don’t like each other. So we know that inevitably they are going to have to work together at some point, in standard movie fashion. That’s simple movie math — Jack & Louis hate each other + Jack & Louis’ kids are in trouble = Jack & Louis must work through their differences to save their kids! But Abrams gives one of the most disingenuous and lazy cheats regarding this “payoff” I’ve ever seen in such an otherwise competent movie. For those who don’t recall, here’s how things go down. Jack finds Louis sulking on cot and is all, “I don’t like you and you don’t like me but we’re teaming up to find our kids, dammit!” Then there is a scene of the two men driving in which Louis apologizes to Jack and they make up. Then the climax happens with Joe and Alice. Then during the denouement Jack and Louis show up and everyone is reunited and hugs. The end. Whaaaa?! But Jack and Louis never actually teamed up to do anything other than ride in a vehicle towards the denouement! Shouldn’t they have had to, I don’t know, do something together? Rescue someone? Fight the alien? Shouldn’t they have played some role, however minor, in the actual climax? In a way isn’t Super 8 also Jack’s story? Riding in a car with Louis was his climax? Seriously? This just seems like Screenwriting 101 here. This is such a fake-out I’m almost impressed. Jack might as well have said to Louis, “Look, I don’t like you and you don’t like me but this movie is almost over so you and I need to make up so that we can show up at the end and have everything be resolved, dammit!” This shows a serious lack of commitment on Abrams part to the entire nature of the dead mom storyline, considering that the film opens with Jack freaking out on Louis in front of Joe. The fact that both Jack and Louis blame Louis for the death hung heavy over the whole film, and then it was resolved through nothing really. It existed while the movie needed it for emotional depth, then it is quietly swept under the rug during the action heavy climax so it won’t get in the way of a teary finale.
5) Give Joe an Arc
Joe doesn’t learn anything in the story. He doesn’t grow. He symbolically (its so on-the-nose I don’t even think it can be called symbolism, actually) lets go of his pain regarding his mother’s death at the end, but I never sensed that pain beforehand. Frankly Joe seems exactly the same at the end as he does at the beginning. Happy and well-adjusted, considering his mom has only been dead for half a year. And now he has a girlfriend. Jack is the one with an arc, which, as we’ve discussed, was treated with zero care or attention. Given the way things go down with the alien, it seems like Joe should have some anger issues. Maybe he should be the one who blamed Louis.
6) Have the Roll of Super 8 Be Relevant
The fact that this movie is called Super 8 is a testament to how quickly it was put into production after the moment Abrams had his first kernel of an idea for it. It would be cool if some kids making a super 8 movie inadvertently caught a monster on film. We can call it Super 8! But that roll of film with the alien on it has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Sure, Joe shows it to some people, but its so late in the game that it doesn’t end up effecting anything that wasn’t about to happen already anyway. They should have gotten the roll back from the developer almost immediately in the story so it could have played a bigger part.