[10 June 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
This is it. This is what we long term film fans grew up on. This was the science fiction that formed our childhood movie memories, the thought provoking and heartfelt spectacle that satisfied our soul before everything turned into intergalactic dog fights and death stars. It carries both wonder and danger, fear and the fascination of what waits for us beyond this galaxy. It’s Spielberg and Trumball, authors like Ray Bradbury and scholars like Carl Sagan. It’s Omni magazine and old worn copies of Weird Tales, the monster models sitting on the bookshelf, along with the dog eared paperbacks lining the bed post. This is J. J. Abrams’ amazing Super 8, a slice of nostalgia so ripe and refined that its intoxicating. We don’t fall under its spell, we fall into it.
We meet our young protagonist, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) on the day of his mother’s funeral. The victim of a steel mill accident, the death has devastated both he and his sheriff’s deputy dad (Kyle Chandler). Fast forward four months and school is out for the summer. Joe agrees to help his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a super 8 zombie movie, and along with pals Cary (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso), and Preston (Zach Mills), they recruit the pretty outsider Alice (Elle Fanning) to help them. One night, while filming at a local train stop, they witness a horrible accident—and the “escape” of something from inside a massive box car. Within hours, the Air Force is all over their sleepy little town, using all means at their disposal to contain… something. It is up to the gang to figure out what is going on, and what they can do to help stop it.
Super 8 is a movie of many marvelous surprises. It mixes period authenticity (this IS 1979 in all its throwback wonder) with postmodern techniques to thrill, enthrall, and engage. This is not just an experience carved out of major special effects or solid set-piece moments (though those do exist). Instead, it’s a look back at people and places that time has turned to comedy, the fodder for a dozen reality TV riffs and repackaged and remarketed emotions. While the filmmaking angle does draw us closer to the contemporary, we are still dealing with an era marked by bike rides and small town sensibilities, working class concerns and frail human connections. We believe in the friendship these kids share, the threat to their entire way of life once the train crash occurs—and perhaps most importantly, the desire to keep both intact when it looks like the outside world(s) will blow it up.
Though obvious inspiration Steven Spielberg sits in the producer’s chair, this is Abrams’ baby all the way. It is clearly carved out of his life experiences, built on his love of monsters and misadventure, the dawning of home video and the possibility of becoming a teenage auteur. Abrams was the same age as his characters in 1979 and he manages to capture the feel and the flow of the times perfectly. He doesn’t hit us over the head with blatant nods. Instead, the cues are sly and subtle (the boys singing “My Sharona” by The Knack, a TV report on the meltdown at Three Mile Island). Other sequences seem to stick out awkwardly, a bit of research revealing the legitimacy of a Walkman or the presence of a particular space food product. Instead of using the callbacks to win us over, Abrams employs their instant recall to redefine the possibilities within his plot.
This means his kids can act like kids again. It means they can survive one of the most horrendous train wrecks ever put on film and still crawl on top of a toppled car to survey the wreckage. These underage characters also talk about their feelings, half-complete sentences suggesting everything while halting word choices highlight their confusion and concerns. This happens a lot when Joe interacts with Alice, and with his best buddy Charlie. These are adolescents just learning about being adults, about accepting that existence is not all fantasy and fun. When we first meet them, their minds are set on scaring the pants off each other, crafting their favorite creature feature as a way of expressing their growing geekdom. Luckily, Abrams avoids the opportunity to insert a bully or bad kid element into the mix. He simply lets his nerd play nerd games and we give in to the delightful dork mentality.
There are so many wonderful little off moments that it’s hard to pick just one: Cary’s ever-present braces… and obsession with fireworks; Preston’s pencil thin resolve and Martin’s ‘man in a trench coat’ lack of acting; Alice’s fragile yet fierce demeanor; the literal town bulletin board; the obvious nods to Romero and other ‘70s horror icons. Everyone in the cast if first rate, from the mostly unknown kids to able adults like Chandler and Noah Emmerich as a merciless military officer. Abrams is not afraid to play with fear here. He treats most of the attacks seriously, handling the suspense with elegant expertise and constantly places even the most frail children in jeopardy. This is part of the plan. This is what turns the movie from a piece of pure popcorn fluff into something substantial and strong.
Oddly enough, it may take an old school mentality to fully appreciate what a writer/director like Abrams is doing here. This is a legitimate family film - forgot all those nonsensical attempts at melding the cutesy with the contrived and commercial to turn the troop’s brain cells to mush. Today’s demo expects lights, eye candy, and action… Action.. .ACTION!!! and this experience is having none of that. Instead, it settles into a rhythm all its own, buying its time and building its layers out of narrative, personality, and fully formed ideas. By the end, when we want a payoff, Abrams delivers in diamonds. He brings everything together in a way that brings a smile to your face and a tear to your eye. Some may dismiss it as nothing but nostalgia or a successful student ripping off his mentor. In truth, Super 8 is just brilliant filmmaking. Despite the era or inspiration, it’s an amazing and awe-inspiring experience.