Terrors both imagined and real: “Super 8”

June 15, 2011

It’s a tough thing for any member of Generation X to review J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, since it’s so squarely aimed at our collective joy-button. We get late-‘70s nostalgia, suburbia, intrigue, self-conscious references to Spielberg’s earlier work, and even amateur filmmaking (something many of us took to, since, well, gotta do something with all those model airplanes and rubber Godzillas, right?) It’s almost possible to evade the question of the story’s quality altogether and just enjoy the trip down memory lane. Fortunately, though, Super 8 is very, very good. If it’s not on par with E.T. or Close Encounters (Abrams’ obvious inspiration), well…few filmmakers have ever managed to match those films. In the end, though, Super 8 is a great summer flick for kids of all ages, and there are damn few of those anymore.

Like Star Trek, Abrams begins Super 8 with the loss of a parent, only in this case it’s the mother of Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), lost in an industrial accident in the steel mill that supports their Ohio town in 1979. Her death has driven a rift between Joe and his police Deputy father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), who is so paralyzed by grief he can’t manage to raise his son. So, Joe finds solace in his circle of friends and the amateur zombie movie they’re making, The Case.

The movie’s cast and crew are a motley bunch of ordinary kids, who also niftily serve as movie-industry archetypes. Martin (Gabriel Basso), the leading man, while wonderfully assured onscreen is, in reality, none-too-bright and not terribly brave (his reaction to stress is to vomit epically). Joe is their makeup artist and lugs around a tackle box of stage blood and makeup. Their “effects guy” is Preston (Zach Mills)—or “Choppers” due to his huge teeth and railroad track braces—who is stone pyromaniac, gleefully blowing things up with his fireworks. Helming this endeavor is Charles (Riley Griffiths), a pint-sized Orson Wells who pursues his vision with a frenzy Werner Herzog would be proud of.

The summer begins with new shoots and characters. Charles read in a movie magazine that giving a character relationships makes them more sympathetic and makes you want to root for them. To this end, he has cast local cutie Alice (Elle Fanning) as the hero’s wife. Alice may be the prettiest girl in their age range, but she’s also from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, as her father (Ron Eldard) is a drunk and a screw-up who drove her mother off. Slowly, over the course of filming, she and Joe bond over their shared parental void.

One night, while filming in an abandoned train station, a real train comes down the tracks. Naturally, the prospect of filming an actual train sends Charles over the moon (“Production values!” he shouts gleefully). While filming the Air Force train as it rushes by, they notice what appears to be one of their science teachers sabotaging the tracks. Moments later, the train derails spectacularly (a little too spectacularly—Abrams could have reined this in a bit). The kids beat feet, but unbeknownst to them something has escaped into the night.

Things in town begin to haywire at this point. Dogs begin fleeing, small appliances go missing from shops, along with car engines, and townsfolk start disappearing. On top of all this, the Air Force has moved in to clean up the wreck and gets increasingly dictatorial. While Jackson tries to untangle what’s happening, Joe and the filmmakers also find themselves drawn into the mystery.

There’s no point in going much further than that with plot. Let’s talk about the movie. Super 8 is a delightful film, but it’s also a flawed one. Abrams recreates 1979 with an attention to detail that borders on the fetishistic (are there any songs on the radio not from that year? And doesn’t anybody have any hand-me-down clothes from mid- or early-70s), but that’s a quibble. Abrams bigger weakness is his ‘70s suburbia is more a character in the film or an elaborate backdrop than an organic part of the story. In Close Encounters, Roy’s chaotic household was directly informed by his irresponsibility as a parent (played out later when he abandons his family to hitch a ride in the space ship). Similarly, in E.T., Elliot’s rambunctious group of friends was a natural form of chaos that was drawn to the sagging home life, still suffering from the confusion wrought by his dad’s abandonment (i.e. if Elliot’s mom didn’t have to work long hours as the sole breadwinner, they would have had some stability).

Likewise, the parallel stories of the military’s nefarious doings never quite meshes all that well with the kids’ adventures, and more than once, I wish we’d ditched Chandler’s scenes to get back to the sawed-off Nelson DeMilles.

But all that means is that J.J. Abrams isn’t quite as sophisticated a storyteller at this point in his career as one of our foremost cinematic geniuses was at a similar point. Hey, we can’t all be Mozart. Abrams is still a very good filmmaker, and knows how to craft a fun, engaging story, and how to create sympathetic characters that we empathize with and root for. 

Joe and his filmmmaking cronies are great characters, and their banter is funny without slipping from naturalism into forced, Hollywood cleverness. Just as critically, Joe’s two main relationships–the budding romance with Alice, and his sometimes-lopsided friendship with Charles–are wonderfully observed and never hit a false note. These are what truly elevate Super 8 beyond being just another popcorn flick. It’s worth pointing out that the emotional closure Abrams gives us in Super 8, while not as full as I would have liked, is not as tone-deaf as Close Encounters or as cloyingly sweet as E.T.

The film ends by showing the full feature of The Case beside the closing credits, and it’s worth the wait. That, not the kept-under-wraps monster is what we’re really dying to see.

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