BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Strange, unexplained events occur in a small Ohio town after a group of teenage aspiring filmmakers witnesses, an inadvertently records, a train crash that might not have been an accident.
PROS: Outstanding young cast, particularly Elle Fanning, aided by Abrams’s fine direction; good use of suspense; strong script populated with interesting characters that almost never slides into melodrama or postmodern irony; a creature that’s genuinely creepy; truly captures the period.
CONS: Excellent pastiche of some of the best Spielberg hampered by a last minute from the very worst; science fictional elements don’t hang together; occasional plotting and elements that might appear silly to modern audiences.
The thing is, it really used to be this way. Before iPhones and Amber alerts cornered anybody under eighteen into overprotective boxes, before postmodernism and computer bulletin boards curdled one’s sense of wonder with cynicism, kids really used to hop on their bikes and disappear for hours with their friends…to where was always limited only to imagination. Before Entertainment Tonight diluted movies into product as disposable as a used tissue and spoiler alerts leeched enjoyment and wonder from the moviegoing experience, one could watch a movie like J.J. Abrams’s Super 8 knowing very little beyond its premise and emerge from the theater entertained and pleasantly surprised, though perhaps not awed. Indeed, one of Super 8‘s charms is that it plays almost exactly as Steven Spielberg production from that period, mostly in the best senses, and on occasion in the worst. That its worst only arrives at the very last moment and does not damage the whole picture speaks very well of its preceding one-hundred-plus minutes. Maybe Abrams, who both wrote and directed, finally, like Spielberg (or Robert Zemeckis or Tobe Hooper or Joe Dante or the many other directors Spielberg took under his wing to make Back to the Future and Poltergeist and Gremlins), could not keep control of his movie, but he knew enough to get most of it right.
Start with the period. Set during the summer of 1979 in Lillian, Ohio, Abrams takes pains to get the details right, from the clothes and haircuts worn by the young leads to the minutiae littering Joe Lamb’s (Joel Courteny) bedroom: space shuttle and Star Wars posters, model trains and monsters and the paints that bring them to life. Additionally, by peppering period references throughout–a woman tells Joe’s father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) that the town’s bizarre happenings must be the work of “the Russians;” a Walter Cronkite newscast makes mention of safety concerns at Three Mile Island–instead of resorting to title cards, Abrams gives the impression that Super 8 could have been lost through a crack in space thirty years ago and has only now resurfaced.
Even Abrams’s approach recalls a time when such movies were a multiplex mainstay. Joe’s friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) wants to make a zombie movie on his 8mm camera in order to enter a filmmaking contest. As he and their friends (including Alice Dainard, played by Elle Fanning) sneak from their homes to film a portion of their movie at a railway stop, they witness and inadvertently film the train wreck that sets the movies primary action in motion: Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), their former science teacher, drives his pickup headlong into a train carrying U.S. Air Force cargo, and something living escapes from the wreckage. All of this could have opened up discussions of genre, fear, even movies themselves, but Abrams resists postmodern, deconstructionist, metafictional temptations, instead staying true to the format. Eschewing the self-knowingly hip irony that might make it seem far more contemporary, Super 8 instead opts for character and plot to drive its story, making it feel by turns nostalgic and timeless.
Often it works. Abrams lets shots linger and occasionally run a second or two too long to give the feel of a movie of that period. At times the characters talk over each other, as in Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The detritus of everyday living, from the cheap plates set on Charles’s mother’s (Jessica Tuck) table to the rumpled sheets on Joe’s bed, speak of a lived in world akin to Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, as do the absent parents (Joe’s mother dies at the movie’s opening). And Abrams knows how to set up suspense as the escaped creature begins to terrorize the small Ohio town; the creature stays out of the audience’s sight for most of the picture, adding to its mystery and sense of danger, revealing itself, finally, to be a creepy being indeed. And when Joe and his friends realize what they are up against, they band together as in The Goonies. Indeed, the movie shines when it brings together its young cast, which includes Zach Mills, Gabriel Basso, and Ryan Lee, all of whom are uniformly good, though Fanning shines. Even better, despite the nods to such eighties fare, Abrams manages to make the material his own.
Sometimes, though, Abrams can’t help but inject a little sap. Corniness slips in at inopportune moments, as in a confessional scene between Alice’s father Louis (Ron Eldard) and Joe’s father, and at the last minute of running time, which throws melodrama onto the audience like a saturated blanket…and yet doesn’t actually detract from the rest of the work. It becomes painfully obvious,too, that Abrams, though truly in love with geek thought and culture, doesn’t quite understand how science fiction works (though note this didn’t hamper my enjoyment of Star Trek). Though Abrams avoids showing the creature terrorizing the town of Lillian for most of the movie, he doesn’t develop its details convincingly…a common failing of most movies of the period, as are some of the other usual traps: the children, of course, are smarter than the adults; Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), the Air Force officer in charge of cleaning the train wreckage and locating the creature, poses about as villainously as one would expect. And a sweet corniness infuses the entire picture, which will well fondness in some and cause bile to rise in others.
Yet Abrams delivers in a number of scenes, too, as when the creature attacks a patron and clerk at a gas station. And when Joe and Alice, at the movie’s climax, attempt to escape from its lair. But the highlight is the initial train wreck, an amazing bit of cinema that I’m sure will become a classic. Whether Super 8 will have the staying power of the movies it emulates remains an open question, but in a summer rife with comic book adaptations and sequels, it’s a pleasure to see something that entertains with some old school thrills, and remembers how things were.