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Super 8


With this picture Steven Spielberg, who produced, seems to anoint J.J. Abrams, who wrote and directed, as his heir.  For Abrams it’s got to represent a childhood dream come true.  The movie’s about a band of friends on the cusp of pubescence who are making a Super 8 zombie movie in a rural Ohio town in 1979.  Oddly, our young lead (Joel Courtney) is not the director, as might be expected of an Abrams surrogate; instead he’s the makeup man. 

At midnight the kids sneak out to shoot a scene at the train station.  As they’re filming, a train appears on the horizon.  The keep the camera rolling as it roars past, but suddenly a truck appears on the opposite horizon, veering onto the tracks and speeding directly at the train.  In the next instant the very world seems to come screaming apart around the kids in a crash apocalyptically staged by Abrams.  Odd things begin to happen around town in the wake of the crash.  Dogs and electronics go missing.  The military rolls in and shady officers thwart Joel’s dad, a local cop, in his attempts to investigate.  What was unleashed when that train derailed?  Could the secret have been captured on their footage?    

You can tick off the Spielberg tropes: kids left to sort things out in the face of the obtuse adults who wield power over their lives.  Havoc unleashed in that very model of order, the suburbs.  Government agents conspiring.  And, crucially, the heart: young Elle Fanning plays the female lead in the movie the kids are making, startling them with what a natural actress she is, and the relationship between her and Joel, who has a crush on her, is really sweet.  This budding first relationship takes place, as does all of the movie, in the wake of Joel’s mother’s death in an accident at the factory where she worked and his going through the process of letting her go.  (Their dads have an intractable hatred for each other for reasons we don’t learn until later).  The movie is imbued with the Spieilberg worldview, which acknowledges that cruel things happen in the world but which never quite looses its innocence, the conviction that human beings are basically good-hearted and intelligent.   

I like Abrams.  If anybody could be the new Spielberg, at least in his big-budget, sci-fi mode, it’s him.  (I certainly don’t foresee him cracking apart on the dire shoals of Shyamalan).  “Super 8” is basically an amalgam of “Jaws”, “Close Encounters”, “ET”, “The Goonies”, “Poltergeist” and many more.  It wants to be the kind of movie that I loved when I was the age of the kids in the movie: Spielberg-produced summer popcorn flicks like “Gremlins,” and Abrams does display skills he no doubt learned at the master’s knee.  He’s got the knack for visual storytelling, the talent for conveying a tremendous amount of information in one shot.  He knows where to put the camera to convey that an object is pregnant with ominous significance. 

But as it proceeds the movie falls prey to Spielberg’s weakness as well, which I noticed even as a kid: that sense of enervation that seemed to settle over his special-effects productions, a numbing feeling generated by all that frantic activity, the interminably soaring score trying to lift something that’s flailing, a sense of a massive budget being deployed to no impactful end. 

It seems to me there’s two audiences for this.  On the one hand it’s people around the age of the kids in this movie, who are not likely to have seen a lot of the things it’s based on.  For them it’ll have plenty of thrills and chills.  On the other it’s adults like me who grew up on this stuff and want to have the experience evoked.  They will have fun even as they wish that the material was stronger, that Abrams had pulled off a little better the trick of paying homage while also keeping things from feeling formulaic.  For example, there are scenes in which an unseen malevolence menaces first a gas station and then a guy in a cherry picker: these scenes played out ­exactly the way I thought they would.            

Still, “Super 8” is a personal project for Abrams, and so was watching it for me, in a lot of ways.  I’m from a rural Ohio town myself (albeit a university town rather than a factory one), and I used to direct Super 8 movies when I was around the age of the kids in this movie.  When they stage a zombie kill for their production it reminded me of a shot we filmed of an ax murder.  My pal, in a wig belonging to my mom, sticks his head out a window.  Cut to an overhead shot (we’d popped the wig onto the Styrofoam head on which it perched when not in use and substituted that for my friend’s head): down comes the ax and lops it off!  My cousins had a camera, too: I remember shooting a film in their basement.  In fact, the kid in this movie who’s in charge of pyro, with his backpack cache of fireworks, put me in mind of my cousin when he was that age.    

The finished Super 8 zombie movie is fun, too; it’s shown over the end credits.  You can see glimpses of an inchoate talent there.  It does seem like the kind of thing a kid might make who’s going to grow up to be a director.  A kid not unlike J.J. Abrams.

Rating: ***  

-- June 23, 2011
Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)


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Reader Comments (5)

They didn't need to tell me on the bill that Abrams was involved, the lens flare gives it away :).

Great review, loved this spot-on bit:

'But as it proceeds the movie falls prey to Spielberg’s weakness as well, which I noticed even as a kid: that sense of enervation that seemed to settle over his special-effects productions, a numbing feeling generated by all that frantic activity, the interminably soaring score trying to lift something that’s flailing, a sense of a massive budget being deployed to no impactful end."

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephen

Very insightful remark about the movie being aimed at two audiences. I saw the movie with my 12-year-old daughter, Zoe, and while (thanks to me) she has seen much of Spielberg's older material, she saw it when she was much younger, so those movies probably didn't impact her as much as they did me (I probably need to watch them with her again now that she is the right age). Thus she found Super 8's characterizations of these kids, exactly her age now, to be insightful and compelling and the romance between Courtney and Fanning to be highly interesting.

I definitely fall into the latter of the two camps you mentioned, having high hopes both that Zoe could relate to the kids and that the story would evoke for me fond memories of that time in my life and Spielberg's earlier films. While the movie was a success with Zoe, I was a bit disappointed. I've noticed that Spielberg's recent productions involving children (and aliens) have much more sinister and frightening situations in them than his older ones do. The kids seem to be in more danger, and the aliens have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The most egregious example is perhaps Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," which has aliens destroying cities wholesale and using their rays to disintegrate thousands of people, while Elle Fanning's older sister Dakota has her talent wasted in a script that has her alternately sobbing and looking genuinely terrified.

"Super 8" isn't that mean-spirited of a movie, but it still contains a hostile alien, and the attempt in the last few minutes to make the creature a more sympathetic figure rang hollow when one remembers the uplifting sweetness of "ET" or "Close Encounters." The script seemed pretty weak on the whole alien story, and in my view sharply contrasted with the well-written scenes involving the kids making their movie. Thus I found myself wishing for more kids and less alien. In fact, I think a movie strictly about the kids and their friendships, sans alien, would have made a better "Spielberg" movie.

My final quibble is with the train wreck scene, which seems to make up the majority of the trailers I see for this film - it's unfortunate that filmmakers have to put their most spectacular CGI destruction-fests in the trailers to ensure that people see their films nowadays. While I expected the scene to be heavy with CGI effects, I wasn't expecting the absurd, physics-defying spectacle that Abrams creates here. Every single car of the train seems to fly up in the air and crash down with an explosion, and this goes on for minutes on end - all this simply from hitting a pickup truck on the tracks? I've seen plenty of car-vs.-train accident coverage, and in most cases the train isn't even scratched, much less derailed or exploded. What the hell was that truck made out of, anyway?

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom M.

Great points, Tom. I'm thinking of "Jurassic Park" especially in the context of your remarks. I remember being surprised when a mother of a young daugher told me that she approved of her kid watching it. Teaches her that nature is dangerous, she reckoned.

I didn't buy the scene of the alien's sudden shift to compassion when he's got Courtney in hand either (even though they tried to set it up by saying that everyone he touches somehow becomes a part of him, or something).

Yeah, the wreck IS completely absurd. (I guess I wasn't thinking of it in terms of its adherence to the physical laws, but just as a thrilling spectacle). And how about the driver of the truck somehow surviving it?

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott Pfeiffer

Come to think of it, the kids in this movie are in pretty real danger at many points in the movie, aren't they? Trying to assuage his fear, doesn't one of the kids even at one point say something like, well, nothing bad's going to happen to us, and know how I know? Because we're kids.

There was actually a preteen sitting behind me, watching with a couple older guys (presumably his dad and grandad, or at least I hope) and I kind of wondered if it was a bit too scary for him, but he seemed fine at the end.

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott Pfeiffer

I had forgotten that Jurassic Park was a Spielberg exercise, Scott, but you're absolutely right. JP can certainly be grouped in with Spielberg's newer works that focus on kids being frightened by creatures, rather than on kids experiencing wonder and discovery.

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom M.

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