Like his adolescent protagonists, J.J. Abrams makes his cinematic influences manifest in Super 8, lifting and quoting liberally from late ‘70s and early ‘80s blockbusters, and particularly from that period of producer Steven Spielberg’s body of work.
However, as much as the current film references, and virtually reproduces, themes, narrative elements, and scenes from Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982), Super 8 is not simply a pastiche fashioned from pieces of childhood favorites, but a work that also shows Abrams’ own authorial quirks and signatures.
The spectacular train crash is a bigger, and big screen, companion to the opening scene to Lost. The metal cubes that rain down from that crash are mysterious technologies akin to the red balls in Alias and Star Trek, or the bizarre experimental devices woven into the storyworlds of Fringe and Lost.
In the opening acts of Super 8, the partially glimpsed alien is a perfect hybrid of the great white in Jaws and the smoke monster on Lost before turning into E.T., if E.T. were big, mad, and dangerous. Abrams’ summer film is a homage to those first modern blockbusters while entertaining on it own terms, too.
Paradoxically, given all of the borrowing and recycling that went into its making, in the present moment, the most novel aspect of Super 8 may be its originality.
Hollywood films these day, especially genre movies, about and for adolescents are adapted from established properties rather than made from scripts written for film. The pleasures in adaptations come from seeing favorite characters and stories on a bigger scale, and with a bigger audience. There are few surprises to be found in movies adapted from book series or comics, and, more often than not, to fans, most surprises are cause for consternation because they tend to signal some missing element or undesired change to the original work. Of course, predictability is the (economic) point in looking to, say, Harry Potter to save one’s bottom line.
What Super 8 offers, in being original to the screen, is shock and surprise, or at least a sense of the unknown in its story and the fates of its characters.
One effect of this originality is a summer blockbuster that spends as much time introducing and developing its characters as it does delivering chills and thrills. In adapted works, characters are already known and, as a norm, are jumpstarted into their adventures. By contrast, until its final act, the strange happenings in Super 8 are left to brew in the background as the townsfolk attend to family, friends, and community. Eventually, the momentary disruptions overwhelm efforts to maintain a sense of normalcy, but until then, the film is more adolescent drama than monster movie.
Even if the characters never grow much beyond their initial archetypes, The Best Friends (Joe and Charles/Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths), the Nervous Friend (Preston/Zach Mills), the Crazy Friend (Cary/Ryan Lee), the Dim Friend (Martin/Gabriel Basso), the Girl (Alice/Elle Fanning), the time spent, particularly with Joe, fosters an affection for the people on screen, a feeling that is important if viewers are to care when the stakes get raised, and suspension of disbelief is increasingly called for, at the close.
If seeing an original cinematic adventure about and for teens and young adults seems fresh right now, having a boy hero is a convention that Abrams chooses not to break. Given the autobiographical readings of the film, readings encouraged in the extras included with the DVD, Abrams can perhaps be given some latitude in having Alice be as capable as, maybe more than, the boys she hangs out with, but, ultimately, turning her into a damsel in distress for Joe to save.
At the same time, if anyone could make a story like this with the Girl as the hero, it would seem to be Abrams, who on television has played a vital role in bringing characters like Sydney Bristow (Alias), Kate Austen (Lost), and Olivia Dunham (Fringe) to audiences. It doesn’t seem as if it would be too much of a reach for him to have imagined Elle Fanning’s Alice as his protagonist, but so far, on film, the writer-director’s female characters play supporting roles or serve as motivation to the male heroes rather than assuming the central narrative position themselves.
The aforementioned extras are spare, and include short features on Abrams’ inspiration and vision for the film, the design of the alien “visitor”, and a commentary track with the writer-director, producer Bryan Burk, and director of photography, Larry Fong. These all offer varying degrees of insight into the film, suitably tending towards the love of the details, the minutiae, of filmmaking.
Of course, as suggested by its title, Super 8 is already a movie about movies. Sitting through the closing credits to see “The Case”, Charles’ zombie short, is maybe all the added meta you need to appreciate the meaning of the main feature.