Director J.J. Abrams’s first major collaboration with Steven Spielberg prompted David Edelstein of New York Magazine to spell it out: “Abrams has probably been fighting not to reproduce Spielberg’s signature moves since the day he picked up a camera. Now, with the blessing of the master, he can plagiarize with alacrity.” Super 8 is not a movie for critics and nit-pickers. It appeals to a summer audience that yearns for the kind of heartfelt, old-fashioned thrillfest, free of sloppy 3D effects, that Spielberg used to create 30 years ago.
The year is 1979. In the idyllic small town of Lillian, Ohio, a group of enthusiastic teenagers plan to spend the summer making their own zombie movie. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the director; in his constant search for “production value”, he has decided to shoot the next scene in the middle of the night at a train depot. Along for the ride is Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), partly because she’s willing to do the female lead, partly because she’s the only one of them who knows how to drive. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), whose mother was killed in an accident four months earlier, has a crush on Alice and falls even harder for her when she turns out to be pretty stunning in front of a camera. However, the night shoot is abruptly interrupted when a passing train hits a pickup truck and derails. The kids barely escape with their lives intact… but something else also breaks free from the wreckage.
Monster worthy of empathy
The movie was preceded by a campaign that tried to keep the identity of that “something else” as hidden as possible… but it’s a worthless secret. The first time you saw Jaws, did the fact that you already knew it was about a shark bother you? Super 8 is essentially a big monster movie, so much so that Abrams had to shoot down the rumor that is was meant to be a sequel to Cloverfield (2008), which he produced. He sure likes his monsters scary but also worthy of empathy. One of the films Super 8 resembles the most is E.T. (1982), especially in the rousing, unabashedly corny climax, but also in the depiction of the kids. The young actors are immensely likable and channel Abrams’s writing in a thoroughly believable way; they are particularly good together in scenes where they’re just hanging, chatting about childish stuff, teasing and interrupting each other. Just like in E.T., the kids face a formidable enemy – the government in the shape of the military who has no idea how to deal with threats in a more delicate fashion. There will indeed be many critics and audience members who refuse to go along for a ride that’s been done in so many ways before. A colleague of mine simply stated that he’s too jaded for this stuff – and that’s cutting to the heart of it. It’s almost impossible to criticize the performances, the action (that train crash has to be one of the screen’s most spectacular) or Abrams’s direction (the pace never lags and he constantly hits the right emotional notes)… but if you can’t sometimes just give in to your inner 13-year-old, then all you’re left with is ridiculing the film’s stolen building blocks. That’s a pity.
It’s hard not to admire this filmmaker. The work of J.J. Abrams is consistently so much more impressive than that of his young blockbuster peers – he knows how to match the hardware with a heart and when to step back and stop pounding the audience with visual effects and rapid-pace editing, in order to achieve something more substantial. And for his die-hard fans… he’s cut back a little on the lens flares from Star Trek. Just a little.
Super 8 2011-U.S. 112 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Bryan Burk. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams. Music: Michael Giacchino. Cast: Kyle Chandler (Jackson Lamb), Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb), Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths… Dan Castellaneta.
Trivia: Some of the scenes involving the monster were based on a motion-capture performance by Bruce Greenwood.
Last word: “‘Super 8’ was never intended as an homage to any films in particular. Before we were shooting I told our cinematographer, Larry Fong — who I met at 12 making Super-8 films — that I didn’t want the film to look like it was made in 1979, but I wanted it to look the way we remember films looking from 1979. That is to say, it needed to be its own thing, with visual and rhythmic motifs that allude to a different era of moviemaking, but made using tools and techniques of today. I sort of wanted to build a bridge between then and now. The story worked the same way: it needed to stand on its own, but with nods to its origins and conventions of the genre. But I never had a checklist of shout-outs that I wanted to make.” (Abrams, Time Magazine)