I am a proud child of the 80s; a once flannel-wearing, Goonies-watching, Zebra-gum chewing, Q-bert playing brat who recalls a time when there were new episodes of The Snorks, Small Wonder and Manimal airing on fuzzy network television. I present this context because JJ Abrams Super 8 has been specifically made for kids of the 80s and how much you enjoy it make come down to how much you connect with those childhood memories. In the end Super 8 is a great time at the movies without quite being a great film itself. Still, in its search for that elusive ‘magical’ quality that we associate most intimately with Amblin/Spielberg films of yesteryear, it demonstrates real magic in a way that the Berg hasn’t in decades.
The film opens with a simple image, charged full of meaning. A factory worker is changing a sign that says ‘Days since last accident’ from 174 to 1. Just like that, young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has lost his mother. After that, it’s just Joe and his father (Kyle Chandler), the town’s deputy, who has little time for his son and even less in common with him. Joe’s own method of dealing with the tragedy takes the form of model making and horror movies, the latter of which he’s been filming with his good friend Charlie (Riley Griffiths). One night Charlie, Joe and the rest of their crew sneak out to the railway station to film a scene for their Romero inspired zombie flick. Charlie has even invited a girl for the occasion, young Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), who turns out to be one heck of a line reader; it’s only a few minutes into the shoot before both Charlie and Joe are smitten.
A military train comes rumbling down the tracks in the middle of the scene and Charlie gets the great idea to keep shooting. It is, after all, hard to find good production values when you are a 14 year old. But then, a battered pick-up careens onto the tracks, derails the train and the kids find themselves running and screaming amidst an apocalyptic wreckage of tumbling freight cars and exploding debris. That spectacular crash sequence thrusts Super 8 into the kind of pulpy, sci-fi tinged adventure story that used to pack theaters for summers back in the late 80’s. Local dogs go missing and show up two towns over, the Sherriff encounters something sinister at an empty gas station, cars and appliances are suddenly on the fritz, and Deputy Lamb, now in charge, is trying to figure out why the electricity has gone out and the military has suddenly rolled into his unsuspecting town. The kids race to uncover the truth, and find themselves facing off against not just the imposing Nelec (Noah Emmerich), who is leading the hunt for whatever strange cargo walked away from the crash, but also the bizarre creature he’s hunting.
Super 8 doesn’t coast on its imagery, but actually dares to take the premise seriously and deliver a film that blends the characters into a tale worthy of a 1950’s B-movie. In that world, Super 8 would have featured the mysterious monster and his plight more and might have had a title like The Latch-key Kids Meet the Star Spider. In Super 8 the beastie is more like elaborate window dressing, and when he does show up he’s not nearly iconic enough—Charlie and Joe wouldn’t be painting models of him or putting up his posters—although his motivations and eventual intersection with the characters do create a worthy pay-off.
It doesn’t matter anyway, because Super 8’s greatest strength, is the emphasis it puts on the kids; their big dreams and their not-as-big-as-they-seem struggles. It’s risky working with child actors when their performances are designed to carry the movie, but Abrams pulls it off and I think that’s mostly because of his trio of young stars. Joel Courtney makes Joe’s growing up plausible, he’s natural regardless of whether he’s playing off Kyle Chandler’s beleaguered father figure or a hulking special effect. Elle Fanning is a delight and a discovery as Alice, and although she’s got her sister’s intensity she also possesses an innocent and endearing charm that Dakota never really demonstrated in her early work. Griffiths is good as the heavy-set kid who compensates with bluster and confidence, despite being tender-hearted and vulnerable underneath; it’s refreshing that his weight issues get a single throwaway line and there’s no Chunk dance or demeaning monikers.
Fanning and Courtney really make the slight romantic angle in the film sing with some real heart. Both Alice and Joe come from broken families, and in another twist that reeks of Spielberg, Deputy Lamb blames Alice’s dad for his wife’s death. This familial friction strains but ultimately only inflames the Alice/Joe relationship, which is more poignant and intelligently written than most ‘first loves’ recorded in Hollywood. Chandler and the adults do their part, and manage to register amidst the copious visual effects that assault the latter half of the story.
Those effects, and the pre-requisite lens flares, bellowing orchestral moments, and close-up framing shots that shrink the world to a kid’s eye view obviously brand Super 8 as a very specific kind of story. Had it not been so eager to embrace all of Spielberg’s ticks and tocks, it might have been an even better movie. Then again, it might also not have the singular and alluring power it has now; in it’s reflected lens, we don’t just see the glowing virtues of the famed director but also his flaws. There are echoes of Spielberg’s dependency on overt sentimentality, his tactic of signing every scene visually when it comes at the expense of the story or actors, and tying his tales in bows and wrapping that their very structure sometimes rejects.
JJ Abrams tackles his own memories and nostalgia and comes up with a film that addresses some of those issues and feelings, and improves on a few (notably the unchecked sentimentality). One of the pivotal scenes in the film involves a young child holding onto a long-treasured trinket, as the small piece of metal weaves and bobs in the air, drawn away to join something larger and greater. The kid lets go, and like those big kids sitting in the audience who share Abrams memories, gains some perspective about that which he gave away. Like the comfortingly cheesy home movie that plays over its final credits, Super 8 functions as a love letter that doubles as a swan song for a particular brand of enchantment that held an entire generation of movie fans in thrall.