Film review by: Witney Seibold
J.J. Abrams‘ “Super 8” was likely pitched as a “high octane ‘E.T.’” (Only in this film, the military actually get to BLOW STUFF UP!) Indeed, in its tone and story structure, it resembles, more than a little bit, the child-like wonder of Steven Spielberg (who served as executive producer). I use the phrase “child-like wonder,” in this case, more to describe a genre than an actual sense of wonder. Abrams is clearly paying homage to a certain kind of childrens’ film that was popularly made in the 1980s, with now-beloved classics like “E.T.,” “The Explorers,” “The Monster Squad,” “The Goonies,” and “Flight of the Navigator,” which all involved a child or a group of children using their tenacity and willingness to explore to discover wondrous things like space aliens or pirate treasure. There are even some shots taken directly from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Such films are now the childhood memories of young filmmakers, and now we have “Super 8,” which is a paean to that genre. Children will see it and likely love it. Had I seen this at age 12-15, I would have fallen in love with it.
“Super 8,” sadly, isn’t quite as good as “E.T,” as is is infected with the slight problems that Abrams has brought to his few feature films to date; that is, his films often feel a bit too structured for their own good. Hearing the dialogue and seeing the way scenes flow from one to the next all feel a bit too textbook; Abrams was unable to conceal the fact that he’s writing something artificial, and as a result, his films feel a bit fake. A bit too much like objects. This I, I admit, a small complaint, but I must acknowledge it. Abrams is known for high octane follow-ups: a sequel (“Mission: Impossible III”), a remake (“Star Trek”), and now this homage. Perhaps next time he’ll move toward something he’s more personally passionate about, and he’ll be able to break free of his unfortunately evident screenwriter training.
But complaints aside, “Super 8” will likely be seen by millions of young people, and will be beloved by them. What it does well, it does very well, and it should be acknowledged that “Super 8,” for whatever flaws it has, depicts the world of children very well, and is possessed of some actual wonder, however orchestrated I have said it feels.
“Super 8” takes place in 1979, following the broody 12-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) who has just lost his mother in an industrial accident. His father (Kyle Chandler) is his small town’s deputy, and is only now becoming used to be an active parent. Joel is best friends with Charles (Riley Griffiths), a leader-type who is obsessed with George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” and who has a super 8 camera with which he is shooting an ambitious zombie film. He dreams of winning a local filmmaking contest “against real older kids.” The other kids in their local posse are Cary (Ryan Lee) who is obsessed with fireworks, and will become either an arsonist or an SFX technician, the bland Preston (Zach Mills), and the only girl in their group Alice (Elle Fanning) on whom more than one of the boys has a crush.
The details all seem to be right. The kids’ rooms are messy. They’re not all angelic little moppets who talk like grown-ups. They’re, in fact, sometimes mean to one another, and swear when there are no adults around. These seems much more accurate to the childhood experience than the bland suburban experience you see in most films.
I really appreciate “Super 8′s” pace and restraint. Rather than getting straight to the mayhem, and showing the mystery of the derailed train, the film takes a good long while following these kids around and exploring their private lives. And while some of the Stephen King cliches begins to rear their ugly heads (secrets in a small town, potentially abusive father, potential packs of bullies), they are kept mercifully muted. It’s not until about 30 minutes in that we see the huge train derailment that sets off the film’s action. Notice, though, that I talked about structure and pacing before I talked about any emotional impact.
What was in that derailed train? Well, the Air Force is certainly interested, and they flood into the small town to cover up their mistake. We do know that there were crates and crates of weird-looking metal cubes on the train. We also know that foul things are afoot; the town’s dogs begin disappearing, cars are ripped apart in the night. Pretty soon, people begin vanishing as well. There are a few scenes that imply there’s a thing of some sort stalking about doing all the damage. I don’t want to give away anything, but I will say that the thing is really scary, as we don’t find out what it is until late in the film.
There was a scene in “Super 8” where Joe, who carries a locket of his mother in his pocket, has the locket taken away from him by a soldier. There was no reason for the soldier to take that locket. The soldier isn’t even mean about it. He justt akes it. You know the scene was included so that Joe could either take the locket back later, or the soldier could give it back. See what I mean about seeing the skeleton under the fur?
Is “Super 8” as good as a Spielberg film? No. Is it good anyway? Yes. It’s rare that filmmakers go for “awe” anymore, for “wonder,” for “mystery.” I really appreciate this largely successful attempt.