Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Glynn Turman
(Amblin Entertainment, Bad Robot)
US theatrical: 10 Jun 2011 (General release)
UK theatrical: 5 Aug 2011 (General release)
Come a little closer huh, ah will ya huh.
Close enough to look in my eyes, Sharona.
—The Knack, “My Sharona”
The best thing about Super 8 is the Super 8. Fourteen-year-old Joe (Joel Courtney) is helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a movie, a zombie picture where the actors lurch and stagger, spurt blood from their mouths when they slam their heads against nails on a wall. The Super 8 look of these scenes is terrific, grainy and blocky, ambitious and familiar.
Charles’ story has a detective, played by the boys’ tallest classmate, Martin (Gabriel Basso), in a bad suit and glasses, and a few explosives effects, engineered by their firebuggy friend Cary (Ryan Lee). Joe’s on makeup (asked how he’s come up with the look of zombie skin, he elucidates the dry brush technique, for which he uses Euro Gray: “Oh my God, there’s like 14 different grays, it’s crazy”). Each day the crew heads out to shoot, determined to make a film contest deadline. When Charles makes a change, Joey’s reluctant. “I just don’t understand why the wife makes it a story,” he complains. Charles explains that this helps the audience care what happens to him: “It matters because she loves him.”
It’s filmmaking 101, and like Charles’ zombie movie, Super 8, produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by J.J. Abrams, is rather wonderfully basic. Clever and well-made basic, celebratory and self-aware basic, but basic nonetheless. So, when the boys bring in Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the wife, everything changes. Not only does she borrow her dad’s Skylark to drive them to the train station to shoot, but she’s also an astoundingly good actor: as she pleads with her husband not to go after the zombies, to stay with her instead, her cheeks seem even paler than before, and eyes begin to well up. The boys watching her are utterly transfixed, and so are you.
So far, so excellent. In this assortment of kids, Super 8 shows a reverence for detail. It’s 1979, Walter Cronkite’s talking about Three Mile Island and the boys ride their bikes everywhere, even to cross the street, and eat Twizzlers. Joe papers his bedroom walls with posters (“Keep on truckin’”) and builds model trains and classic movie monsters (the hunchback of Notre Dame, Romero’s zombies). His mom has died recently in an accident at the steel mill, leaving his dad Jack (Kyle Chandler), bereft, immersing himself in his work as a deputy. He thinks Joe should go to baseball camp, away. “It’d be good for you to spend some time with some kids who don’t run around with cameras and monster makeup,” he murmurs, looking off screen as Joe’s face falls. In turn, Joe’s been spending his time on the movie and at Charles’ house, surrounded by siblings and couple of amiable parents (“You always have a place here,” assures Charles’ dad). Joe is completely smitten by Alice. And watching her with him, through the Super 8 frame, you know exactly why.
Then comes the monster, at once the major metaphor and problem of Super 8. It first appears while the kids are making that magical scene at the train station. Thrilled to see a train headed their way (“Production values!” announces Charles), they scurry to set up and shoot, with Joe on the boom mic and Alice needing to yell out her lines over the train’s ruckus. Distracted for a moment, Joe sees the accident that will change everything: the train collides with a white pickup truck, derails, and explodes, car by car. The sequence is thrilling, the cuts both efficient and dreamy, the frames perfectly askew, the children panicked and rushing amid flying debris and flames, but also amazed to be part of a real and fabulously movie-like disaster.
As they pull themselves together—and recover the camera that continued to roll even as it laid on its side, where it was dropped amid the chaos—the kids must run away from a slew of soldiers, suddenly arrived on scene. Before you can say E.T., the film is transformed. First it’s a science fiction story, where the armed adults—led by the prototypically insidious Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich)—are trying to get at what the kids know and also keep hidden from them and everyone else in town the secret alien that was on and escaped from that train. And second, it’s a story about fractured families, healed by their encounters and near misses with the alien, primarily, Joe and Jack, and also, Alice and her dad, local “loser” Louis (Ron Eldard).
Neither of these stories works as well as the kids’ own, that is, the making of their movie. In their efforts to sort out what’s happening to them, the losses they endure and the desires they feel, they find both poetry and a revealing mirror in their work. That so much of their experience is recorded on film—on their own Super 8 footage—makes it both fragile and fixed, a source of clues to what’s happening they might watch again and again, as well as a weird, inaccurate reflection of their internal lives. On top of the boys’ Super 8 footage is another lost-and-recovered reel, found among the belongings of a science teacher, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), also mixed up in the secret and a target of Nelec’s peculiar vengeance. As the boys watch this old-timey black and white imagery, they’re unable to suss out what it means, exactly, but they know it means something, as all movies do.
As they gaze and consult, interpret and marvel, the kids who watch movies in this movie serve as your surrogates as much as objects of your own gazing and interpreting. Until Super 8 turns to its more pedestrian plot business, the aliens and the action, you’re looking closely with the kids, hoping to share what they might understand.