I’m reasonably certain that any movie lover can, with some thought, point to one movie in particular which started them off. For me, that has to be Steven Spielberg’s E.T., admittedly from its 1985 re-release rather than its original 1982 run. Whether Spielberg has lost his magic touch or I’ve grown and changed since I was six years old is a matter for debate, but the fact remains that few movies from any creative team manage to evoke the sense of wonder I once found in E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or The Goonies. Not that it doesn’t happen, and not that Spielberg produces nothing but crap like Michael Bay movies, but it’s a significantly rarer experience these days.
Still, if anyone can make a serious attempt to capture the same kind of magic in a film can — other than Gore Verbinski — it’s J.J. Abrams. And he enlists Spielberg’s help to do just that with Super 8. He never quite gets there, but there are definitely glimmers to be seen. And along the way he manages to use a special-effects laden science-fiction summer blockbuster to actually tell a real, human story — a revolutionary concept Michael Bay never figured out.
Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney in a breakthrough role) is a middle schooler in Lillian, Ohio in 1979. His father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler),is one of the town’s deputies and his mother works at an unspecified industrial mill; or at least she did before she was killed in an accident. That summer, Jackson would rather send Joe off to baseball camp, partly because he doesn’t really know how to be a father — particularly while still processing his own grief — and partly to help encourage Joe towards more “normal” interests. Joe is an avid modeler, and he put his artistic talents to use helping his friend Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths) and the rest of their gang make amateur movies on Super 8 film stock.
While working on a short zombie movie called The Case for a nearby film festival competition, Charles decides that the detective in his story needs a loving wife to help engage the audience. He enlists Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), partly because she can use her father’s car for transportation when the crew sneak out of their houses for night shoots. While shooting one of these late-night scenes at a train station, Charles is inspired to shoot while a train happens to be passing by — “production value”, he explains — but while he’s focused on the action, Joe notices a pickup truck turn onto the tracks and drive directly towards the train, leading to a spectacular derailment, scattering twisted scraps of boxcars and mysteriously ornate white cubes across the landscape. The hastily abandoned camera keeps rolling.
After collecting themselves, the kids rush home amid promises not to let anyone know what they saw. The next morning, the crash is all over the news. An Air Force unit moves led by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) moves in in to contain the scene, but refuses to explain anything. Meanwhile, all the town’s pets have disappeared. The power grid seems sketchy; anything to do with power generation from gasoline to car engines to microwave ovens to electrical lines is being stolen. Even a few people have vanished. Clearly there was Something on that train.
A Freudian-oriented critic would have a field day with this film, as it presents not one but two fairly straightforward coming-of-age stories; you win no style points for subtlety if you present the death of the mother-figure and subsequent transfer to adolescent love-object by literally killing the mother. Still, despite all the sight and sound and fury it shines through that Joe and Alice — and, to a lesser extent, Charles and even Jackson — are the main point here. These are real human characters telling real human stories, not just a bland audience-surrogate and a piece of eye candy to provide the loosest of threads from one explosion to the next.
I was, though, hoping for something more to be done with the movie-making theme. When Abrams so clearly evokes such a seminal film as E.T., using young movie-makers as characters and setting it in a time when he could have been their age and making his own first tentative steps, and goes so far as to name the movie after the kids’ film stock… well it’s a bit of a let-down for so little to be done with the film cartridge itself. What is it about this hobby that makes these people into who they are? why is film — as represented by the film cartridge — so powerful and important? I don’t mean that their geekier, less-normal aspects should have been played up — the fact that they were clearly geeky but not much was made of it was one of the wisest choices made — but other than getting them to the train station that night the particulars of shooting Super 8 movies didn’t actually play much of a role at all. Spielberg’s movies were important enough to Abrams to make this a clear homage, but why? But maybe I’m hoping for too much and should be contented with any good story, even if it’s not the one I wanted to hear.
At its heart, Super 8 tells of how pain and anger and recrimination can, when they are locked away and repressed rather than handled with communication and compassion, gnaw away under the surface until they burst forth and destroy absolutely everything in their path. Maybe it’s not magical; maybe it’s just that nothing will every quite measure up in my mind to those formative experiences. But this is a good lesson, a good story, and a very good film; and I’m not one for letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.