‘Super 8’ Shows a Return to Spielbergian Form

Not a ‘super’ stay but…

Starring Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills, and Ron Eldard. Directed by J.J. Abrams

Oh, childhood memories.

Movies, our multimedia “escapism,” have that ability to make us remember things that we’ve long since forgot. Growing up. Being kids. Filmmakers in Hollywood have the ability to note-for-note recreate a time that we barely knew or can remember except in tiny fragments like getting our first cassette recorder or Walkman, or riding a bike, or just hanging out with friends.

Filmmakers also have the ability to mimic or emulate previous cinematic fare. We’ve seen remakes that mostly ride on the brand name of what’s being “updated” for current audiences (“Gone in 60 Seconds”) while there have been a few that have been as good as the original (“Cape Fear”). Then again some experiments like the shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho,” are needless except to be an exercise in the fact that yes, it could be done but probably shouldn’t be. I think I would hang it up if they ever get around to doing a shot-for-shot remake of “Back to the Future.”

‘Super 8’ belongs in a slightly different field. Produced by Steven Spielberg and written and directed by J.J. Abrams ‘Super 8’ doesn’t just recreate a time and place but an actual feeling of that period of time which, given enough “period piece” movies, is more than difficult enough to pull off. Or, again, it just might be my childhood nostalgia. Either way J.J. Abrams a little more than leans on Spielberg classics such as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and seemingly pulls off the kind of movie that would’ve loved as a kid.

The story takes place in 1979 or for those of you barely, if not, born at any point during the decade it was a time before iPods and cellphones; when if your mom or dad called for you their voice was heard for miles if they didn’t show up right behind you because you didn’t come home. The place is Lillian, Ohio, a town built around the local steel mill. A kid named Joe Lamb (Courtney) sits outside alone on a swingset in the dead of winter holding a locket in his hand. His mother Elizabeth (played in flashback by Catriona Balfe) was killed in an accident at the mill when she went in for someone else’s shift and a giant steel beam fell on her. Joe is now in the care of his father Jackson (Chandler), one of the town’s Deputy Sheriffs.

Fast-forward four months and we’re introduced to Joe’s high school environment and friends all of which are working on a zombie movie. There’s the writer and director Charles (Griffiths), the cameraman and pyro-expert Cary (Lee), the lead actor Martin (Basso), and additional help Preston (Mills). Joe is in charge of makeup and has a penchant for model making. Charles approaches Joe with new information: they’ve secured a female lead in the form of the incredibly beautiful Alice Dainard (Fanning) who also has her own transportation to boot. Everything is set for go and they plan a late night get-together to film a scene at a train station. Alice almost backs out when she finds that Joe is part of the group because his father, Jackson, constantly jails her father Louis (Eldard) for being drunk and the fact that Elizabeth took Louis’s shift at the steel mill. The ideas of what could’ve happened or not happened…

Lights? Check. Makeup? Check. Camera good? Check. The filmmaking party setup at the train station and do a run-through. Alice’s acting astounds them all. With a train rolling down the track they make sure to pick up their “production value” and begin filming it. Out of nowhere an old Ford truck jumps onto the tracks and slams itself into the train on intention. The cast/crew scatter immediately as giant railway cars crash, flip, fly, smash, and explode. Once the wreck is over the group reforms, making sure everyone is safe and sound, and proceeds to the wreckage of the truck. Slumped over the wheel is high school teacher Dr. Woodward blood running down his face and his hand gripping a pistol. He’s awake long enough to tell them not to speak a word of it to anybody or else they’ll die, and then passes out. Military vehicles descend upon the area and the group quickly disappears but not before Joe picks up a mysterious white cube.

What follows is a slow mystery of events happening across the town. Dogs begin disappearing from houses. Electrical appliances either work erratically or disappear as well. And a few townspeople go missing, too.

The group tries figuring out what happened but keep to the fact that they shouldn’t be talking about what happened. Why did Dr. Woodward try committing suicide by running head-on into the train? Why is the military in the area? What happened to all the dogs? And why is the sheriff missing? In the middle of these questions are the relations between the crew especially between Alice and Joe who begin falling in love which causes problems with Charles.

‘Super 8’ plays on the idea of pitting the human “monster” (the military) versus the alien monster (an actual alien) and makes the old sci-fi case of man misunderstanding, or trying to control, alien technology as well as what an actual alien has to go through in order just to get home (see also: “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “E.T.”) It mostly works except the final scenes feel… sort of antithetic. However, that shouldn’t detract from the 80-90% of the movie that’s well worth watching if not just to feel like living in the early Eighties again.

Should you watch this one? I’ll say yes but if you’re still unsure check out a matinee showing. It’s not a perfect movie; it has its flaws. I’ll put it on my Blu-ray pickup list.

My grade: B+

 

3 Comments on "‘Super 8’ Shows a Return to Spielbergian Form"

  1. Any and all criticism aside, the fact is that if even half of the summer blockbusters out there tried remotely as hard as this film does to interject heart, good characters, and real human emotion into the film-going experience, that movie critics would have much less to complain about.

    Anyone who hasn’t seen JJ Abrams’ TED talk about his philosophy on film, if you don’t respect him yet, you will:

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