Super 8 derails all the infantile movie-making of explosion artists and delivers a nostalgic return to the subtleties of cinema.
In retrospect, it’s funny to think that Steven Spielberg was condemned by many of his contemporaries during the ‘70s and ‘80s, that movies of such material merit were criticized of stripping Hollywood of its depth and reducing substance to spectacle. We can only laugh at at the thought of what those same detractors would think of filmmakers like Michael Bay. But Spielberg was, and still is, far from a simple manufacturer of parlor tricks; he was a master storyteller, capable of photographing our most closeted fears and intimate imaginations. Produced by Amblin Entertainment and Bad Robot Productions, and distributed by Paramount, J.J Abrams now aims to pay tribute to the man, his method, and its magic.
In a run-of-the-mill Spielbergian suburbia in 1979, Joel Courtney is Joe Lamb, a timid kid with an estranged father (Kyle Chandler), a recently deceased mother, and a fat filmmaker for a friend (Riley Griffiths). When they’re not at school, Joe and the aforesaid weighty Charles make movies and talk movies. Accompanied by the intimidating companionship of a young belle (Elle Fanning) and two of their buddies, the adolescent Hollywood aspirants take to the night to shoot their 8mm zombie flick.
Super 8’s first act is pure pleasure and a joy for the juvenile in all of us… especially those of us who made movies when were a kid. Pressed for time in the late hours of the night, telling your friends to shut up and stop screwing around because you’re running out of film, arguing for twenty minutes about whether to go for a close-up or a medium… it’s impossible to suppress a smile.
Cue all hell breaking loose. A speeding train springs from its tracks in a massive crash and, unbeknownst to the crew, a perverse E.T. frees itself from one of the cars, setting into motion the military occupancy of the small Ohio town. The rest of the runtime centers on many of Super 8’s characters coming to grips with unresolved family issues, notably the Spielberg-trademark of fathers and their sons, and a straightforward ‘damsel-in-distress’ finale.
Closer to the third kind beings of Encounters than the central titular alien in the Extra-Terrestrial, the creature in Super 8 is more of a MacGuffin monster. It doesn’t play a real role except to act as a catalyst for the maturation of Joe, his friends, and their families. It drives the plot forward like a chauffeur… not really there, and you don’t really care… you just want to get to where you’re headed. This excuses the fact that the alien is not nearly as memorable as notable others, although Abrams does well in adhering to the principle of what you don’t see is more frightening than what you do see, as blurring and obscure angles prevent you from almost never having a clear view of the monster, making it all the more menacing.
From a technical standpoint, Super 8 is a virtuoso comparable with the works of the maestro it models. Whether it’s the mechanical madness of a tank crushing the innocence of a child’s playground, or the seldom shot of a silhouette against the skyline, the images here compliment, rather than dominate the established world. Frankness forgiven, I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again… movies with balls are nothing without heart. The explosive images employed here are powerful because Abrams understands the principle that we don’t give two sh*ts about a propane tank exploding… we care about the people that the blast could harm. Of course speaking of our director, what would an Abrams film be without a hundred lens flares, except that this time the visual device is actually relevant, continually reminding you that you’re watching a movie… and that’s what Super 8 is all about.
The awe and wonder of the film’s legendary producer trump the cheap cookie-cutter ‘blow it up and they’ll keep entertained’ strategy. Its monster forges these people by being, rather than interacting. Understand this… it’s not E.T. or Close Encounters… it doesn’t quite match the sentimentality of those films. Nor does it wield the same amount of scriptwriting focus – I felt as though J.J. was working to too many things instead of one sole objective – but it undeniably possesses the heart of its producer’s predecessors, and similarly challenges its heroes to grow up… and yet stay young. It tributes Spielberg, the frustrating fun of amateur film-making, but more than anything, it tributes imagination once again… And the power of ideas over imagery.