by: Austin Welch
A return to familiar territory.
A lot has been made about writer-director J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 being an unapologetic love letter to the late 70s/early 80s era Steven Spielberg’s work. Well, it’s all true, but since when is that such a bad thing? Spielberg captured our imaginations with films such as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which both awed us with spectacle, but remained grounded with very real, human emotions. Too often these days, films go in one direction or the other, and seemed to be resigned to a perception that the twain should never meet. Thankfully, Abrams – a filmmaker some have called derivative of Spielberg, who co-produced the film – is unwilling to surrender to such perceptions, and with Super 8, reminds us all that blockbuster-level flicks can still have heart.
The film opens in a small, blue-collar town in an undetermined state (think The Simpsons‘ Springfield), where an accident at one of the local factories has left a local deputy and his son without a wife and mother. Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler, veteran of tv series such as Early Edition and Friday Night Nights, as well as the occasional feature) is having difficulty dealing with his loss, and casts blame in the direction of the man he feels is responsible for the accident. His son Joe (Joel Courtney, in his screen debut) is your average American boy of middle-school age, trying to sort out his mother’s death and his difficult-at-best relationship with his father. These performances are the emotional anchor of the film, as they both, in their own way, attempt to unravel the mystery that is occurring in their town in the wake of an Air Force train derailment (more on that later). Chandler and Courtney deserve high praise for knocking it out of the park – especially first-timer Courtney.
Abrams should be commended for opting to go with character actors and unknowns in most of the roles, something that lends the film an air of realism and believability. In fact, it is the group of young, partly first-time child actors that carries much of the film. An old Hollywood rule suggests that you never work with animals or children, but either Abrams has no qualms about kids, or at the very least knows how to deal with them, because the performances he’s elicited here are among the best in recent memory. When Joe helps his wannabe filmmaker friend Charles (Riley Griffiths, hilarious in full Jr. Spielberg mode) make an amateur zombie movie (the entirety of which plays over the film’s credits), a late-night shot at a railroad location makes the group of young boys (and one girl) witnesses to said train wreck. Escaping with their lives, and – unbeknownst to them at the time – photographic evidence of what the military was transporting on the train, the kids continue making their film in the ensuing days, believing the wreck serves to add “production value” to their work. In the process, Joe finds himself falling for Alice (Dakota’s emerging sister Elle Fanning), which is complicated for more reasons than the fact that Alice’s father is the man who blames himself for Joe’s mother’s death.
Meanwhile, the government rolls into town, and assumes control of the wreck’s investigation from local authorities. It is here that a rift forges between deputy Lamb and agent Nelec (Noah Emmerich, most recently seen as the genetic scientist Edwin Jenner in The Walking Dead), with Nelec eventually arresting Lamb for being a possible intelligence leak after admitting what he knows about the train’s cargo and the researcher-turned-teacher that caused the accident. Dogs, people, and microwaves all begin to disappear, and we are given intermittent and increasing glimpses of the creature. Other mysteries such as small, white, cube-like debris from the accident add to the tapestry, and by the mid-point, the audience is captivated by this brilliantly-paced film.
Far too often, period pieces, especially those taking place within the last 40 years or so, suffer from an apparent unwillingness to commit to the period’s notable hair and clothing styles. Ya know: you see a movie taking place in, say, the 80s, but the star still seems to wear a fairly current hairdo, or the production’s costume designer opts for an homage to the time period, rather than produce actual era clothing for the stars to wear. Not so with Super 8; I don’t know whether it’s Abrams’ attention to detail, or if he merely surrounded himself with competent production designers, but the film literally feels as if could have been filmed in 1979. Another small detail that added to the film’s retro vibe are the sporadic shots of the young characters riding through town on their bicycles. This point may seem like a head-scratcher, but ask yourself – how often do you see kids riding bikes in movies anymore? You used to see that kind of thing all the time. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the excellent period soundtrack, including the obligatory disco sides, the Commodores’ “Easy”, and several rock standards of the day from ELO, The Cars, and The Knack.
While the heart and setting of the film are essential, let us not forget that like any good blockbuster, effects are integral to the film’s success. The train wreck is the best captured on film since 1993′s The Fugitive, although it appears to be almost entirely CGI. (The Fugitive‘s wreck was mainly practical, involving the derailing of a real train, with minor effects tweaks.) Practical effects do occur throughout the film, including some of the tighter shots of the kids running from the wreckage. If anything, the CGI alien, which looks just as good as anything executed these days, might be the one aspect of this film that counters the retro film-making vibe. Again, it’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that no one had CGI in 1979, so in a very small way, it stands apart from the rest of the effects work. However, the build-up of the creature’s reveal is satisfying, as is the establishment that it is of a highly intelligent order, not merely a carnivorous ball of meat. Its monster-like activities are motivated by fear and a desire to escape captivity and return to his planet, not a simple case of monsterism-for-monsterism’s sake.
Is Super 8 the most original movie you’re ever going to see? Not by a longshot. References and homages to everything from the aforementioned Close Encounters and E.T., to other touchstones such as Star Wars, The Goonies, and even the River Phoenix/Ethan Hawke vehicle Explorers, are oft-occurring in the flick. But as George Lucas achieved with Star Wars, Abrams manages to wrangle his many influences into a pen that somehow feels like new territory. Italian opera composer Guiseppe Verdi once said, “Torniamo all’antico e sara un progresso,” which roughly translates to English as “Let us return to old times, and that will be progress.” Perhaps Abrams was taking this to heart when conceiving Super 8.
Super 8 is a reminder to those of us who cut our teeth on all things Spielbergian, of what films – particularly blockbusters – once were, and could be again. It is a gift to the children of today; it is their own Close Encounters, their own E.T. But my fear is that today’s generation, jaded and cynical as they are in the post-internet age, will unfortunately not appreciate it. It will likely end up serving as a security blanket to all of us adults who sometimes wish we could return to those times. Which makes it a gift to us, after all.