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.
-- June 23, 2011
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)