Being a child of the late 1970’s and early 80’s, Steven Spielberg was the filmmaker that sort of defined my generation, and I have no regrets over that. His sci-fi blockbusters like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND or E.T. weren’t just impressive pieces of cinema, they would become the seminal films of an era, and influence a style of moviemaking for many years to come. But in recent years some of those sensibilities have been lost, and more emphasis has been placed on flashy effects and style than the actual substance of a film. In 2009, J.J. Abrams redefined how we look at a classic TV series with his incredibly successful update of STAR TREK, drawing on classic sensibilities but playing to the mindset of a new generation. It was nearly flawless filmmaking, and showed us that movie theater magic still has a few tricks up its sleeve. Put Abrams together with Spielberg as producer, have created a throwback movie about kids encountering something extraordinary… and just for the heck of it, set it in 1979. The end result is SUPER 8, and it’s a film that plays effectively to my generation.
The story follows a group of young kids who are making a zombie movie, but find themselves unexpectedly delayed when the mother of their pal Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is killed tragically in an industrial accident. Joe’s policeman dad Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) must now step up and be a family man, a task many think he’s incapable of. Four months later, Joe and his buddies are continuing their project, and bringing in a female presence with Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning). One night while shooting with their Super 8 camera against the backdrop of a train track, a horrible derailment occurs, almost killing our group, but more importantly bringing forth the presence of United States military forces to the small town. What the kids don’t realize at first is their camera is still rolling while they’re running for their lives. In the aftermath, the kids see the man responsible for the wreckage is their school science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glenn Turman), now holding on for dear life. Woodward warns them not to speak of what they saw, of the military will kill them and their parents too. The gang flees for their lives as the armed forces arrive, led by a mysterious man named Nelec (Noah Emmerich). Soon the town is slowly overrun with military men, and strange things begin to happen. Dogs disappear, engines are being removed from cars, and even select town folk wind up missing. No one seems to know what is going on, and Nelec’s troops offer no answers. Deputy Lamb begins asking questions, and Joe and his friends seem to find the town’s panicked state to be a great backdrop for their film. But when things go from bad to worse, will anyone know how to resolve matters… or will it already be too late.
There are certain things that have become identifiable with a J.J. Abrams production, such as heavy use of lens flares (a halo effect given off by a bright light within a shot), the discovery of secret footage, and deeply shrouded mystery within his stories. If you’re a fan of LOST or his other productions like CLOVERFIELD and FRINGE, you’re undoubtedly familiar with what I speak of. All of these elements are present in SUPER 8, giving it that distinctive Abrams look and feel, but the project still manages to recapture some of the magic of yesterday’s cinema – particularly that of producer Steven Spielberg. Certain portions of SUPER 8 feel like not so distant relatives of films like E.T., THE GOONIES, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and perhaps even beloved non-Spielberg fare like STAND BY ME. There’s a charm present here that’s been missing from films for a while now, a sense of childlike wonderment that was common a few decades ago which seldom surfaces in blockbuster movies these days. And it’s that element that drives SUPER 8 and helps make it endearing to the audience, regardless of its faults.
The casting of the kids was important and done well, particularly in the case of leading first-time actor Joel Courtney, who combines equal parts of E.T.‘s Elliott and Mikey from THE GOONIES. The subject matter lives and breathes based off his believable performance, and the performances of his friends in the film. Newcomer Riley Griffiths turns in a solid supporting role as the aspiring young director of the film within a film, and Elle Fanning does a fine job as the romantic interest. Ryan Lee is also a memorable young talent as the firework enthusiast friend Cary, and becomes one of the stronger supporting roles in the picture. Some of the kids fall into the background by no fault of their own, but rather through the script’s focus on a few key players. Kyle Chandler is also good as the father figure who must step up to greater responsibility with both his son and his town. Everyone is doing their best work in this film, but there are a few let downs from an acting standpoint. Noah Emmerich barely scratches the surface at being the antagonistic authoritative figure playing Nelec. I get the sense we were supposed to really hate and fear him, but he instead seems to be playing it by the numbers, never quite getting a chance to shine. Ron Eldard also seems underwritten as Alice’s alcoholic father Louis, a character that for all intents and purposes should have displayed the most depth, but instead barely gets any screen time. Then there’s the heavy use of CGI, which at some points sadly destroys the nostalgic feel the film is trying so hard to display. But most of those shortcomings are forgivable if you’re like me, as I enjoyed what the filmmakers were going for and ultimately the overall presentation. There’s plenty of references to geek culture of the time period, such as Aurora model kits of famous film monsters, not so subtle nods to horror movie legends like George Romero, and even direct mentions of make up masters like Dick Smith. If you like monster and sci-fi movies, this is the film for you. While it may not be as ultimately heartwarming as E.T. or as consistently adventuresome as THE GOONIES, the story of SUPER 8 does succeed in being a loving tribute to the cinema of this time period, and is quite entertaining. The Spielberg influence isn’t just intended, it’s incorporated lovingly, and helps the presentation achieve a classic look and feel.
Abrams likes to keep an element of mystery to his projects, which was evidenced greatly in CLOVERFIELD (a film that never revealed its monster until the final frames), and of course with LOST which hooked viewers and kept them consistently watching week after week despite not knowing where it was all headed or why. And while SUPER 8 may not be quite as shocking or unexpected as some might hope it to be, it is still mysterious enough to make it work on many levels. It’s almost risky to talk about it too in depth without running the chance of spoiling something, but chances are you already know mostly what to expect. I’m not sure if this is a movie that will “work” on everyone to complete success, but I do think folks my age will appreciate what is there, and wonder where we lost some of the better parts of its storytelling technique. Even the always-impressive Michael Giacchino supplies a superb score that moves the action along at a respectable pace, and never overpowers the dialogue the way it easily could have.
These days films are all about sequels and reboots, and while this project is neither, it does harken back to a more fun time in theaters… and that’s definitely a good thing. Considering what Abrams and Spielberg were able to accomplish playing off of one another, one might hope that if another INDIANA JONES film is to be made, maybe J.J. should be behind the camera with Steven looking over his shoulder. Couldn’t hurt, right?