I’ve got a lot of love for some of the science fiction films from the 1970s, particularly because they were some of the earliest ones that I can remember. We had a VHS of E.T. that I remember watching periodically, and after my obsession with Star Wars, someone got me a copy of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film that’s slowly grown on me over the years, to the point where it’s one of my absolute favorites. J.J. Abram’s latest film, Super 8, helps to recall some of the best points of those films, and go right to the center of what makes a film truly great, rather than mere visual spectacle that’s designed to bring people in for the initial theater run. This film feels like the type that is designed to run the distance, and to become a film that will last for years to come, and serves as a great counter-film to another project that Abrams was involved with, Cloverfield.
Set in 1979, the film opens in the aftermath of a disaster that takes the live of Joe Lamb’s mother, setting his, and his father (one of the town’s deputies), into a bit of a flux, as they try to regain some stability and clarity in their lives. Joe escapes into work on a zombie film with his large and somewhat controlling friend Charles, along with the rest of their small clique of friends, hoping to submit their film to a film festival at the end of the summer. Bringing along the town drunk’s daughter, the lovely and standoffish Alice, they begin to film a scene at the train station when a train is deliberately derailed by their science teacher. Spectacle ensues, and the boys see something strange, before escaping as armed soldiers rush on scene. Chaos ensures in the town as town’s dogs and people go missing, strange things happen to electronics and cars, while the military moves in to clean up the mess, but refuse to answer any questions. All the while, the boys are trying to use the background as the perfect setting for their film.
Super 8 does a really good job splitting their duties between looking at the kid’s perspective and looking at how their parents see what’s going on, and Abrams excels here by putting together a great cast of new actors, with a lot of people pointing out the similarities between this and films such as E.T. and Stand By Me. I found some similarities between this and Freaks and Geeks as well. This group of kids really makes the movie: the story is character-driven, and the result is a great film that sees kids steering their own destinies. Ultimately, the kids are also believable, unlike in one of the trailers for an upcoming film, where a child sounds like an adult for their entire appearance. These kids feel just like I remember when I was 12, 13 or 14ish. It feels honest, and that gets major points.
Other cues from older films also help: Abrams ops for a slow buildup, and there’s some good camera work that supports that: the camera lingers, capturing some key moments throughout the film, while not abandoning the excitement when the train derails and the tanks roll through town. The creature that’s driving the main story here is also fleetingly seen until the last couple of moments, and feels far more Cloverfield than ET. It’s a great mechanism, with some great, geeky tension for the audience.
Still, there’s parts that don’t quite fit as well in the modern day and age, and the events in the film help to anchor the film nicely in the later days of the Cold War. At one point, a lady stands up in a crowd and declares that all of these problems must be a result of Soviet actions. A couple of people in the theater laughed at that, but looking at the state of the public during that era, it’s not far off the mark: Abrams captures the moment of the 1970s, but not in a way that’s readily relatable to the modern audience, at least when it comes to the big themes or historical relations. In a way, this is one of the bigger strengths of the film, because when it comes up against the films that it’s been compared to, it’s in good company, and it’s something that I could easily see being created forty years ago.
In one way, this is a bit of a bother to me when it comes to Abrams: for all that he is as a rising star with the science fiction / fantasy genres, he doesn’t do well at wholly original ideas – as original as one can get in fiction or entertainment. Looking at his track record, Star Trek, Mission Impossible, and now this film, there’s a great modern look at older franchises, television shows such as LOST or Fringe non-withstanding. It fits with our culture, one that looks to remixed albums, comic book characters that run back decades and movie and television franchises that have repeated themselves ad nauseum. Nostalgia is one component here, but another is familiarity.
Super 8 manages to really pull itself out of this lurch by being not only an original story, independent of franchise, while taking familiar tropes and moving them around on their own, but it doesn’t rely completely on them: the story is driven by its own architecture: the characters working with their environment as it sends fastballs their way.
This is also a whole different from from other efforts like Cloverfield, where the film is simply a group of people buffered by events around them, with no or little control of their actions and the world around them: this film is the diametric opposite, and I think for that reason, it's a story that will last far longer, and it honestly a better story for people get some type of message from.
I loved Super 8: I rarely want to see something more than one in theaters, and while it has its flaws here and there, it’s a film that excels on its many merits. Plus, it’s a film that has a bit of meta narrative, one that nods to the origins of the current crop of filmmakers , while giving something to everyone else in the theater. And? It’s a whole lot of fun. It’s hard to argue with that.