N OTE: This is completely SPOILER FREE review of ‘Super 8.’ There is ZERO discussion on the “monster” of the movie and its origin/appearance etc. Enjoy.
If there is a flaw in J.J Abrams’s ‘Super 8’, I’ve missed it. And I’ve seen the film twice.
While the film is an ode to the Science Fiction cinema of the 70’s and 80’s (in particular Steven Spielberg’s movies – who also produced ‘Super 8’ alongside Abrams) it doesn’t just run on the fumes of Baby Boomer nostalgia. I’m sure growing up watching films such as ‘E.T’, ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ and even John Carpenters ‘The Thing’ would help – as I’m sure growing up actually making films on Super 8mm Cameras also would – the joint collaboration between Spielberg and Abrams isn’t an empty exercise in cashing in on your sentimentality. If anything they cash in on their own youth and love of cinema.
A huge deal has been made (even by myself) about how the film looks and feels like a movie that Steven Spielberg himself would have made in the 70’s. It’s true -and a great thing – but what irritates; is that people are fixating on this and dismissing the film entirely because of it. It’s missing the point. Sure ‘Super 8’ has over a dozen (I counted 18 over two screenings) specific nods (or homages) to Steven Spielberg films; it doesn’t ever force them down your throat. The nods are inserted organically, and if you aren’t like every film critic (who sits and obsesses over the Spielberg filmography) then it wouldn’t even be noticeable.
It’s not like the film stops and Abrams comes on screen and points out the imagery: “Oh see the Sheriff is staging a town meeting – have you all seen Jaws?” – In essence ‘Super 8’ is not the movie that Abrams thinks Spielberg would make; it’s the movie that Abrams and Spielberg made together. Half of it is Abrams, half Spielberg – and I think you can literally see this in the films story.
It’s 1979 and a group of young teenagers are making short monster movies on their Super 8mm film camera. During the shooting of a scene they witness a huge train crash – in which something escapes – and they’ve caught it on camera. The story centers around Joe (Joel Courtney), four months ago his mother passed away in an accident, and his father; Sheriff deputy Jackson (Kyle Chandler) has become distant since. Joe is a model maker and is friends with Charles (Riley Griffiths); the director of the shorts.
Charles convinces Alice (Elle Fanning) – the most popular girl in school – to act in the short; the thing is Alice’s dad is partly responsible for Joe’s mothers accident. Also along for the filming; are the nervous Martin and Preston (Gabriel Basso and Zach Mills). Rounding out the group of kids is Cary; the fire cracker obsessed special effects guru (played by Ryan Lee).
Together they all sneak out at midnight to film a key scene at a train station; it’s here they witness the crash. After this, unusual and mysterious events take place in the town; causing near hysteria. With a huge and suspicious military presence; Deputy Jackson takes it upon himself to uncover the truth; all whilst the kids continue to shoot their movie – and in many cases come to bond together.
‘Super 8’ does have the spectacle and the action you expect in a huge blockbuster – but it also has what so many big movies are missing these days: heart.
For a blockbuster to work it needs to be iconic, and I think ‘Super 8’ is. And what’s testament to Abrams’s ability is how easy it is to walk out of the movie and go “Man! How about the bit where…etc etc.” I wouldn’t dare spoil any big scenes here, but what impressed me the most was how Abrams made the quiet scenes the most iconic of all: A look, or a moment shared between Alice and Joe, or a specific shot of a locket. But it’s one scene that is the most special to me: Joe projecting 8mm film of his mother onto the wall.
Of course there is much more in terms of ‘memorable moments’ but you have got to experience them for yourself, and even though it’s a very suspenseful and action packed monster movie – it’s also very emotional; taking the time to develop it’s characters and make you care about what happens to them.
All of this works because it’s personal. It’s where the negative reaction to the Spielberg influence bemuses me. Yes, ‘Super 8’ is so relatable to filmmakers ( I myself made very similar films to what the kids in the movie made – I once used chicken breast as a human brain substitute – and I also remember having many cars stopping by the driveway, thinking that we really shredded open the stomach of my friend), but the movie is also relatable in general. It may be too scary for the very young kids, but up from 11 it will be fine.
‘Super 8’ is a family film that doesn’t once patronize children. It’s scary and dark and violent, but in the same way ‘Jurassic Park’ or ‘Indiana Jones’ are – and even though it’s about broken families (which in some way every Spielberg film is) it’s also about the mending of that brokenness. It’s also about growing up and the moments that our innocence becomes lost. Some may find the story of ‘Super 8’ overly sentimental and sappy – but don’t listen to those grinches. The reason it feels this way is because it’s bare and very relatable – it’s beautiful simplicity reaches you, and brings your guard down. Some may be too afraid to drop those defenses, but I defy you to not feel something during and at the end of ‘Super 8.’
Great cinema is always (in someway or another) personal. And all of the broken family and innocence stuff is lifted from the lives of Abrams and Spielberg – Joe and Charles seem like Abrams and Spielberg themselves. As I said before, I think Abrams and Spielberg made the movie together – and it all seems personal. The attention to detail, such as the way the rooms are dressed, and the way the kids go out and use the 8mm camera, and even the way that they interact with their families – it all read as if Abrams and Spielberg are airing out some kind of laundry. This even goes for the style of the movie, and yes, there are a shitload of homages to Spielberg, but one need only look at the lens flares to see JJ Abrams’s stamp on the film.
For every story-beat or shot that seems influenced by Spielberg, there is a shot that comes from Abrams, and for a real pretentious and academic look; the ending of ‘Super 8’ -which I’m NOT spoiling by the way – finally melds the two styles into one; and if anyone has ever seen an episode of ‘Lost’ they can attest to this. The excellent John Williams inspired Michael Giacchino music and all. To me, the film is all about parallels – you have two stories running at once (the kids and the adults), then you have the Abrams and Spielberg stuff, and you also have the scenes of the super 8mm film the kids make. I feel that I could write a thesis on the movie’s layers (whether they are there or not) – but I’ll save all that analytical stuff for another article.
You can put it this way: Abrams and Spielberg made an amazing movie. Done.
All of the themes and layers of the script and direction are one thing, but what truly elevates the film to a classic status is the performances of the children. Abrams, like Spielberg in the day, has managed to get astonishing performances from all the kids (and the adults too). Everyone is excellent. Elle Fanning, gives easily the best performance I’ve seen in 2011. They should give that girl an Oscar. The cinematography is also excellent, it’s grainy and a little messy – but there isn’t a bad shot in the movie (unless you hate Lens Flares). Look, technical proficiency is one thing, but there is a certain magic to ‘Super 8’ that I can’t quite put my finger on what it was exactly.
This magic, maybe it’s the confidence, or the simplicity. Maybe it’s how effortless it all seems. The performances, the cinematography. Nostalgia. Spielberg. Maybe it’s the awe inspiring feeling that is mostly absent from modern day hollywood. Maybe it’s just the severe lack of good blockbusters of late. I don’t know.
‘Super 8’ made me forget myself for two hours, and that hasn’t happened in years. There will be a lot of hyperbole coming out over the movie, and I don’t think all of it will be unwarranted, it’s a movie about movies; made for the lovers of movies…
And because we all love movies, ‘Super 8’ is a movie for everybody.
10 out of 10.
‘Super 8’ is released in Australia on the 9th of June.
You can check out our interview with J.J Abrams here.
Also here’s the trailer if you’ve missed it: