It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the trailers for the new JJ Abrams film “Super 8” that there is a heavy sense of nostalgia at the heart of the movie, but that’s not all there is to it. While I may not be on the “loves it unreservedly” end of things, I think “Super 8” has much to recommend it, and it is a lovely next step for Abrams as a filmmaker.
“Super 8” tells the story of a group of young friends who are making a zombie film together in the late ’70s when they accidentally capture a terrifying train accident on film. During the accident, something escapes from the train and begins to wreak havoc on their small town, and the kids find themselves at ground zero for an incident that changes their perception of the world around them. That’s the plot, and it’s fairly straightforward. There’s no big giant twist that is being protected by the ad campaign, but that’s not the sort of film it is. I think people get wound up by how close Abrams plays his cards, and they build a film like this or “Cloverfield” up to be something it’s not before they ever see it.
“Super 8” is a fairly modest affair as summer movies go, and in that way, it definitely feels more like the summer movies I grew up watching. In an age where summer films routinely cost $200 million or more, and each new movie feels like a contest to see how much they can crank up the spectacle, it’s nice to see a film that seems relatively scaled back, focused on character first. The first shot of the film is a factory floor, where someone is changing the sign that reads “Days since last accident on the job.” They erase the 174 and write in a 1. And just like that, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) finds himself without a mother, alone with his father, Deputy Sheriff Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), emotionally devastated. He turns to his friends to try and get over the accident, losing himself in the act of moviemaking.
The stuff the film gets dead right involves the young friends and their love of filmmaking. It taps some of the same spirit that made “Son Of Rambow” such a treat, and setting the film in 1979 evokes a moment when many kids were just starting to get a look at the way films are made thanks to behind-the-scenes specials and magazines like Starlog, and just from the things we see in Joe’s room, it’s obvious he’s been bitten by the bug, and hard. Each of his friends brings a different enthusiasm or talent to the table. There’s Cary (Ryan Lee), whose love of explosives seems to be surpassed only by his enthusiasm for playing the undead. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is a husky kid who loses himself when he gets behind the camera as a director. And for Joe, putting make-up on the zombies seems to be almost therapeutic to him, a way to forget the real life death that has cast a shadow over him.
The problem is, his father doesn’t approve. I can relate. I love my dad, and he’s been very supportive of my career and my choices since I’ve moved to LA, but there was certainly a point in my life where my interests and his were at odds. There was a period where I would not have been in trouble if he’d found a Playboy in my room, but a Fangoria would have sent him over the edge. I would look at an issue of Fangoria and marvel at the work done by Tom Savini or Rick Baker or Rob Bottin, and to me, those guys were artists. But when he looked at the magazine, all he saw was graphic violence and nightmarish imagery that genuinely upset him. I’ll admit a certain amount of satisfaction when I was able to send him an issue of Fangoria with the monster from “Pro-Life,” my second episode of “Masters Of Horror,” on the cover, and by that point, he’d reached a place where he could laugh about it and enjoy it as the accomplishment it is. For Joe’s father, he’s having enough trouble figuring out how to talk to his son without having to navigate the disturbing terrain of this unfamiliar world he’s becoming part of, and it worries him.
There’s one kid in particular that Joe’s father is opposed to him spending time with, and of course, it’s the one person that Joe is most drawn to, the lovely Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), who Charles manages to talk into starring in the film as the wife of the police detective played with hilarious earnestness by Martin (Gabriel Basso). Alice’s father Louis (Ron Eldard) was the one who called in sick the day of the accident, which is why Joe’s mother was working, and so Joe’s father blames Louis for the accident. It’s a deep wound, and yet Joe and Alice get past it immediately. The moment Joe sees Alice act, he has that lightning bolt moment. In some ways, “Super 8” is about that moment in adolescence where we stop listening to everything our parents say and we start making choices, both good and bad, for ourselves, and Abrams does an excellent job of capturing that feeling of being out at night, doing something we know we shouldn’t, but also fully enjoying the freedom.
Of course, very few of my illicit nights out involved train crashes or aliens.
Abrams has said in a few interviews that “Super 8” was originally two different ideas, and I’d believe that. The alien half of the movie isn’t badly staged, and there are a number of effective sequences involving whatever it was that escaped, but it feels a little undercooked to me, and if there’s one big thing that it does wrong, it’s the way they hold the reveal of the creature as long as they do. It’s one thing to keep the audience curious before you get them in the theater, but that entire section of the film feels like a trailer to me. I love the notion of a benign creature that was captured decades ago that has been getting angrier and angrier while it waits for a way to get home. I just wish we actually got to meet the creature as a character and not just as an effect. I don’t need the movie to be “E.T.,” but as it is, the film feels unbalanced to the point of being deceptive. I think the kids are more important, and they work beautifully together, but the way the material’s handled now, the film doesn’t quite earn the big finish that it builds to, and that’s a shame. Technically, the alien stuff is very effective and expertly accomplished, and there is a sense of mood that makes it feel like it’s building towards something. As long as you don’t expect it to pay off in some bigger way, the ride is entertaining.
If they had made the alien more of a character, his emotional journey could have played against Joe’s in a way that really illuminated both of them, since they each have pain they have to get past, and although it feels like the film pushes that idea right at the finish, it doesn’t get there organically. Having said that, Joel Courtney, the kid who plays Joe, is a real discovery. Natural and at ease with the most demanding emotional material Abrams throws at him, he feels like an old pro, and some of the film’s most compelling moments are simple conversations between him and the always-good Kyle Chandler. Elle Fanning is also quite striking here, and she seems to be developing into quite a performer, as natural as her older sister is mannered. And because the human stuff is so good, I don’t mind that the alien storyline doesn’t quite gel.
After we saw it, I was driving home with my co-writer Scott, and he said that he imagined JJ Abrams sitting next to Spielberg on-set and, after every take, just turning to him and saying, “I love you.” I can see his point. There is a profound love of the early films of Spielberg, palpable in every frame of the film and the staging of certain sequences. There’s one moment in particular where the kids decide to stage a scene in front of some soldiers, using them as extras in their movie, that has that same cheeky wit that marked films like “Jaws” and “Close Encounters” so clearly. And yet, even with the influences as clear as they are, I think it’s lazy to dismiss this as just nostalgia. Much of what’s going on in the film feels very specific and honest, and the nod to Spielberg is, more than anything, an acknowledgement that for people of a certain age, he was one of the people who woke this love of filmmaking, who inspired us to want to tell stories in the first place. I am on the record as having little use for empty nostalgia, and honestly, that seems like the least important part of what this film is doing. That’s just a style, the language in which the story is being told. It’s not a game of “name that movie” as you’re watching, and Abrams doesn’t pack the movie with specific references. I have a built-in gag reflex when it comes to feeling like I’m being pandered to, and that’s the last thing I’d accuse Abrams of here.
“Super 8” isn’t going to be the giant blockbuster event of the summer, and if you’re looking for a nonstop creature feature, this ain’t it. But the film’s gentle charms and young cast won me over, and in the end, this is a lovely look at getting over pain and letting go, wrapped in just a bit of sci-fi and wonder.
“Super 8” opens everywhere June 10, 2011.