The movie fetishizes all the pop-culture accoutrements of 1979: the newfangled Walkman, “My Sharona,” Blondie, Walter Cronkite on the evening news, big cars and the movies of Steven Spielberg. By 1979, Spielberg (who produced this movie) had two big hits: Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, both of which inform and inspire Super 8. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial wouldn’t come along until 1982, but its long fingers are all over Super 8 too. And for a while, that’s good.
The hero of Super 8 is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a boy whose mother recently died in a steel-mill accident. Joe’s Dad Jack (Kyle Chandler) is distant and depressed: a deputy sheriff with a hot temper and little interest in his son. Joe’s best friend is Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths), a pudgy kid with a huge family of rambunctious siblings. Charles is an aspiring filmmaker with a summer project making a zombie movie called The Case for a regional film festival. Joe and Charles and their nerdy buddies Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Cary (Ryan Lee), a firebug who likes to play with explosives, along with Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the slightly older woman – she’s 15 and gorgeous – are shooting a scene late at night at the train station when they witness (and inadvertently film) a spectacular and horrific train crash.
It takes them three days to get their film developed, by which time strange things are happening all over town: Dogs are disappearing, people are disappearing, car engines are heisted, the lights flicker and something noisy and big is shaking the trees. A bunch of heavies from the Air Force, led by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), are asking a lot of questions and acting in a most menacing and suspicious manner. Something alien this way comes, and Abrams, who likes to keep his monsters hidden until the Big Reveal, does everything but show the E.T., as Joe and his buddies investigate their real-life monster movie. Meanwhile, Joe and Alice grow close, and Joe and his Dad grow further apart.
Super 8 is a coming-of-age movie, a sci-fi monster movie, a trip down Memory Lane; and it works best when it’s most thoroughly rooted in the past. In that halcyon, not-too-distant time, kids ride their bikes everywhere and run around at night without parental supervision. There are no helicopter parents in Super 8. The kids amuse themselves and flourish under benign neglect, stick together through thick and thin and hunt down alien monsters while the adults…just where are all the adults in this town? Kids today, I suppose, would have to ditch their hovering parents deliberately in order to have similarly enriching experiences.
The kids are all right in Super 8; Fanning is especially good, but Courtney and Griffiths are also terrific. The dialogue nicely captures the period, as well as the mood swings, excitement and everyday travails of adolescence. It also delivers enough pleasurable jolts of suspense to compensate for the way the character arcs and the plot go their separate ways as the movie progresses. In the second half of the movie, the charm, wonder and nostalgia of Super 8 turn into a close encounter of the thoroughly modern special effects kind. It would have been even better if the movie could have been more cohesive, if story and character had developed together; but it’s still a fun, lively and engaging movie. There are no genuine surprises in Super 8, but it is enjoyable enough as it plays out a familiar story to its desired and expected conclusion.
As an exercise in Spielbergian nostalgia, Super 8 evokes classic Spielberg, but Abrams doesn’t quite have the master’s touch at fusing sentiment and a sense of wonder with rousing action. You get the sense that Abrams – like his onscreen doppelganger Charles – is still struggling a bit to pull it all together and understand how that alchemical movie magic happens. (Stick around through the closing credits to see what kind of movie magic young Charles conjures.) But for all that, Super 8 is still pretty good.
Syd’s pick: Take another look at Jaws in Steven Spielberg’s back catalogue
Back in the summer of 1975, before anyone had any idea what could be done with computers, Steven Spielberg made a little movie called Jaws with a giant mechanical shark (named Bruce). The shark reportedly malfunctioned frequently during the movie shoot, so Spielberg turned the camera around, using it to film from the shark’s point of view instead. About a quarter of the movie was shot at water-level, to make the audience feel like they were treading water. The illusion scared real people right out of the real water. Sometimes necessity is the mother of good filmcraft.
What sells the illusion is not just good editing and judicious camera angles, but also the characters, and the fine performances of the movie’s three human stars, Roy Scheider (as Sheriff Brody), Robert Shaw (Quint, the shark-hating crusty old salt) and Richard Dreyfuss (as the smartypants oceanographer Hooper). The story is simplicity itself: Shark bites man; man hunts shark; shark hunts man. What makes Jaws a classic isn’t the plot or even the monster, but that the movie is moving, terrifying and hilarious, and makes you care what happens to three men on a leaky old boat. Nowadays, it’s so easy to make the monsters technically perfect that we risk forgetting how much creativity and artistry it really takes to make a good movie.
@ Syd M