Adults weaned on ’80s-era Steven Spielberg classics will no doubt experience a sharp tinge of nostalgia while watching Super 8, and the children they bring along will get an exciting version of those films to call their own thanks to writer/director J.J. Abrams, who stays faithful to both the style and tone of movies such as E.T. and The Goonies while slyly infusing them with his own contemporary sensibilities. And coming after the point when the shotguns carried by the government agents in E.T. were digitally erased and (unwisely) replaced with walkie-talkies for a recent DVD release, it’s undeniably refreshing to see a new fantasy adventure that both refuses to sugarcoat the childhood experience and possesses an actual air of danger.
In many ways, Super 8 feels like one of those bold films that came out just after the PG-13 rating was implemented by the MPAA -- when filmmakers were still exploring the boundaries of the mysterious new rating. Not only do the kids in Super 8 swear, but they also have a gun pointed at them by a teacher, run for their lives from a massive train wreck, and make a treacherous dash through a suburban war zone amidst a deafening barrage of military firepower. Yes, parents, this is definitely one instance where you’ll want to hire a babysitter for the younger kids -- even if the older ones are likely to let them sneak a peek once the movie comes home in just a few short months.
Ohio, 1979: Suburban youth Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother in a tragic factory accident. Joe’s father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a deputy with the local police department, doesn’t seem especially prepared or equipped to be a single parent, and as a result, a rift seems to be opening up between the two. Meanwhile, Joe and his best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), decide to spend their summer vacation shooting Charles’ Super-8 zombie film, a project that gets a much-needed boost when their pretty yet troubled classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) agrees to take a small role in the film. Late one night, the crew sneaks out to shoot a scene at a local train depot. As a locomotive comes barreling down the tracks, Charles rolls camera in hopes of getting some extra production value into the scene. He gets much more, however, when a speeding pick-up truck hops the tracks and derails the train. In the ensuing chaos, something otherworldly manages to escape from one of the tightly sealed cargo cars. Over the course of the next few days, Joe and his friends struggle to stay tight-lipped about the incident as the military rolls into town and strange things start happening. Car engines, appliances, pets, and people are vanishing at an alarming rate. And after the sheriff himself goes missing, Jackson attempts to step up and calm the community. Little does he realize, there’s a very real reason to panic, and as the military begins evacuating the town, the young filmmakers discover that their camera captured something incredible on the night of the crash. Something that United States Air Force Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) is determined to keep covered up at all costs -- even if it means destroying an entire town to do so.
Once upon a time, long before the Internet, some summer blockbusters actually possessed an aura of mystery in the run-up to opening day. Even with genre-specific fanzines and mainstream shows like Entertainment Tonight, we were never quite sure what we were going to get when we purchased our tickets and took our seats. With Super 8, Abrams and company have successfully managed the impressive feat of re-creating that experience by crafting an intriguing teaser trailer and ensuring that precious few details of their film were leaked before the release date. It certainly makes for a unique moviegoing experience (especially for youngsters who’ve grown accustomed to having every spoiler available at the click of a mouse), and it helps that Super 8 does indeed measure up to the films it emulates.
However, Super 8 is so effective in capturing a very specific moment in time -- including the look and tone of the movies released then -- that aside from Abrams’ trademark lens flares and advanced special effects, it’s nearly indistinguishable from the real deal. The youngsters in Super 8 look like real kids instead of glossy imitations; the sense of community harks back to a time before people withdrew into their homes to play videogames and surf the Net; and sensitive issues like the death of a parent are handled with a refreshing honesty that doesn’t discount Joe’s intelligence. A barroom conversation between Joe and his father shows Abrams’ talent for revealing telling details about his characters through more than simple dialogue, and a confrontation between Joe and Charles over Alice later in the film displays the writer’s keen understanding of the complex dynamics of adolescent friendships. Abrams knows that the action in Super 8 won’t have much impact unless we have a strong connection with the characters, and though some (such as Alice’s sad alcoholic father) seem to have gotten slightly shortchanged in the mix, even the peripheral ones each get at least one genuinely memorable moment.
As the young lead, Courtney does a commendable job of balancing his character’s devastating loss with his devotion to friends and growing feelings for Alice, who is played to perfection by Fanning -- especially in a scene where she reveals an unknown detail about the accident that took Joe’s mom, and the conflicting feelings that have haunted her ever since. It’s easy to get cynical about nepotism when it starts to seem like every movie star’s kid or younger sibling wants a chance to shine, too, but it’s obvious from her performance here that she would have likely succeeded even without her famous surname. As the malevolent Nelec, Emmerich achieves Spielbergian villain perfection; early in the film we’re told just how far Nelec will go in order to keep his secret safe, and after seeing how he handles his enemies, we have little doubt he has the capacity for true ruthlessness.
And while composer Michael Giacchino’s effective score may never soar to the majestic heights of John Williams’ iconic work in films like E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it still manages to capture that same distinctive tone in a manner that echoes those great works without straining to re-create them.
If there’s any major fault to be found inSuper 8, perhaps it’s the fact that it traces the structure of Spielberg’s own E.T. just a little too closely for comfort. Still, there are enough key differences to make Abrams’ take on the material a completely original story in its own right, and anytime a filmmaker chooses to tell his or her own story rather than working from existing material, movie fans have something to be thankful for. Which leads to one of the last, and perhaps best, ways that Super 8 calls back to the era before every movie was a potential franchise in the making: in the end, we’re left not with a cliffhanger or a sudden sting that indicates the entire story has yet to be told, but with a sense of wonder and amazement as both the emotional and fantastical story arcs draw to a tidy, satisfying close. It’s funny how such a simple concept like creating a self-contained story can seem so bold; then again, it pays to remember that Abrams is taking his cues from an experienced master, rather than an eager upstart seeking to ensure career stability for years to come. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan