If you find yourself impressed upon by your friends in upcoming days to describe what, exactly, Super 8 is, you can tell them simply this: imagine a hybrid mix, if you will, of the Stephen King adaptation Stand By Me, The Iron Giant, E.T. (another Spielberg joint), and Cloverfield (another J.J. Abrams joint). You can bother them with specifics, sure, but that’s about covering all your bases, there. The film is good, to be sure. It is highly entertaining, it is surprisingly touching, and it is well made — but it is interesting that everyone’s reviews think first of comparison points.
The film begins with a sequence of a man ticking back an accident counter at a mill, a gloomy counterpart to all those cartoon sequences. Joe (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother in an accident. The father is distant. Joe’s friends are concerned, but more concerned that he won’t want to finish their zombie movie with them — especially Charles, an aspiring George Romero type. A cute girl, Alice, (Elle Fanning) is recruited into the mix. The scene is all set up like one of Charles’s movies for the monumental train crash that turns the small Ohio town into a disaster area 51.
What Abrams has done exceptionally well is create characters that are emotional centers, which is especially hard to do with children. The adults are more than beside the point. Joel Courtney’s face alone inspires pathos in the most stout-hearted of viewers; when he begins to well up with tears and paw his dead mom’s necklace, forget it. He and Elle Fanning have a very sweet romance, too, one far more believable than Jack and Kate from Lost, for instance. There are certainly a few moments where the emotion goes from sweet to saccharine, and in those moments you will be rather annoyed with yourself for crying (much in the manner of reading Tuesdays with Morrie).
Beyond the acting choices, which are impeccable, the film itself is serviceable. The definitive aesthetics of the horror genre early on give way to the soft lenient glow of a modern-day E.T.’s big blue eyes by the end, which isn’t as silly as I make it sound but is certainly a predictability. The conflicts between Deputy Sheriff and his son Joe, Deputy Sheriff and local bum, local bum and daughter Alice, start out monumentally chasmal, and then are patched up mildly. There was a confusion, at least on my part, about which era this film took place. In many aspects it seems to be a straight 50s lift, but the cultural references (including Blondie‘s “Heart of Glass”!) suggest the late 70s (which, apparently, it is). The horror movie vibe screams early ’80s and the Evil Dead films. (Perhaps Charles and his movie magic was just ahead of his time.)
I return again and again to other films as I describe Super 8, and the homage aspect is assuredly intended, though perhaps overplayed. The film, after all, is named after the film stock with which the kids shoot their movie, not Alien Invades Town (though with increasingly literal fare such as Cowboys and Aliens — another Spielberg production — one wonders how far off that is). It’s a love story to film, to growing up and to making films, and if it has something interesting to say, it is in this arena.
Consider what Charles says to Joe the day following the crash, watching the story break on television: “It’s on the news, it must be real.” This regarding an event that has taken place, in front of his eyes, leaving physical marks upon his person, only the night prior. Suggesting, of course, that it is film or television that shapes reality and creates our perceptions.
Note, too, that Charles says the train speeding by will be a “high production value,” shortly following which the train crashes in the most spectacular of manners — a high production value, indeed. He, the filmmaker, has shaped this occurrence not only through his words, but through the lens of his camera. It is the film of the event that they later turn to in order to confirm their suspicions. When they see the alien on film, only then do they know.
In this way they are remarkably like us, no? I noticed in the theater a few people craning their necks in the early scenes to try to get a glimpse of the carefully hidden monster. They needed also to have it confirmed what they most likely already knew, or guessed. Abrams, like Charles, knows the value of a meticulously placed sign (although, later, when we do see the creature, the idea that a gas station sign would cover it is fairly ludicrous). Charles grows frustrated with the amount of smoke covering the early part of his train crash footage, because: it obscures. It makes things uncertain.
We identify with the children because they, too, are lost and unsure. The same way they need confirmation, so do we. If Super 8 has something to offer us aside from the fairly solid story of some young kids and their new alien friend, it’s this little snuck-in concept of filmmaker as architect and initiator. In that case, the film is operating on a few different levels, surface and meta, and that’s something I can always get behind. Recommended viewing.
Natasha Simons is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, if you can imagine such a thing. She blogs here.
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