Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
It took me a while to realize what the J.J. Abrams written and directed work SUPER 8 actually was, and once I settled into that notion, the world got a whole lot better. More STAND BY ME than CLOSE ENCOUNTERS or E.T., SUPER 8 is one of the truest, purest examples in recent memory of a movie that reminded me of friends gone by, the fun that being a kid used to be, and the way movies energized our spirit of adventure to make our own sci-fi short films that borrowed from STAR WARS, as well as episodes of "Star Trek" and "Buck Rodgers."
I can say in complete honesty that I am not one of those who has ever worshipped at the altar of Abrams. Never met the man or even spoke to him. I was a fan of "Lost" but I actually dig "Fringe" way more at this point. And while I was a great admirer of his take on STAR TREK, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III left me a bit empty. But it's clear to me from SUPER 8 that he and I share a great love for the early works of Steven Spielberg (a producer on this movie). If you ever walked out of a Steven Spielberg film wanting to find out more about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life or just kick ass after walking out of an INDIANA JONES movie, you will absolutely respond to SUPER 8.
The plot of SUPER 8 is ridiculously simple: a group of kids living in late-70s small-town Ohio are making a zombie movie in their spare time. Young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is an extraordinary make-up artist (following the handbook by Dick Smith), while his closest friend Charles (Riley Griffith) is the film's director. Charles manages to get Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to agree to be in the film because he likes her. She may not be the most beautiful girl in his school, but he senses that she is a kindred spirit. It doesn't hurt that she's a terrific actress and can even cry on cue. But Alice seems to find more in common with Joe, which is not good news since his mother's recent death seems somehow tied to her father (Ron Eldard). And when Joe's dad, the local sheriff Jackson (Kyle Chandler), finds out the kids have been keeping company, he forbids it from happening again. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one of many favorite characters, Cary (Ryan Lee), who has a passion for explosives that begins with firecrackers and ends with…well, it never ends. The child actors in SUPER 8 are all so good.
In an attempt to do as much location shooting as possible, the kids sneak out at night to use a small, abandoned train depot as a set. When they hear a train coming, they rush to get the seen shot so it will end just as the train goes by. But just past the depot at a train crossing down, a pick-up truck swerves to get on the track headed straight for the train barreling down the track. If you've seen any trailer or the teaser for this movie, then you know the disaster than ensues. And as many of you know, something held behind a well-sealed door gets out, but what you don't know is that that isn't the only bizarre thing that happens during the crash.
The kids retrieve their camera (which, although knocked over, continued filming) and get the hell out of Dodge as the local Air Force authorities convene on the crash site. Although the kids are clearly shaken up by the events, they also are charged to finish their movie and even decide to use the train wreckage as a background for their set up the following day. And that's one of the many things about SUPER 8 that rang so true for me: these kids aren't traumatized by destruction; they're energized by it. They want to take more risks. When Sheriff Lamb finds out his son not only is keeping company with Alice, but seems to actually like her, he puts a lockdown on Joe, but that doesn't deter these kids from getting together and finishing their zombie flick. Art before all else!
The military presence in the town grows exponentially, and the kids soon figure that something has gone missing from the train. Despite the film being set in 1979 (there are reports of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant disaster on the TVs), in a weird way, the way Abrams handles the Air Force clampdown (led by Noah Emmerich's Nelec) feels more like something out of a 1950s, paranoia-driven sci-fi film. Naturally, the kids find a way to use the presence of military vehicles in their town as part of their movie.
I don't think there's any secret that there's an element of SUPER 8 that is not of this world. But here's the thing: that part of this story didn't capture me to the same degree as the much larger sections of the film about friends and family, and I don't think that's a flaw of the filmmaking; I think it's deliberate. The extra-terrestrial vs. the military elements are the backdrop for a much more interesting and human story being told about parents and their kids, about loss, and about forgiveness. I'm sure that's exactly what all of you science-fiction fans really want to hear, right? But the truth is, without getting overly sentimental, Abrams pulls it off in the same way Spielberg always managed to. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is less about first contact and more about making connections with other human beings as well as a power greater than one self. For Roy Neary, meeting those aliens is tantamount to meeting God. But I digress, because these kids don't care about seeing or meeting aliens as much as they want to do whatever it is they're going to do together.
People are tossing around the word "nostalgia" a lot with regards to SUPER 8, and I find that odd because, by definition, nostalgia implies a glorification of the past. If you want to see a movie that's out now that contemplates nostalgia, I'd recommend Woody Allen's MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (I'm serious, go see it). I never got the sense that Abrams was glorifying the late '70s with this film beyond a few small tributes to model making and mentions of a couple movies of the period. The film is set in this time because it was the beginning of an era in history when children could make their own movies with super 8 cameras that were actually affordable to people without a lot of money. Abrams is chronicling the birth of a kind of cinematic imagination that began in the mid-1960s and ended with the video camera.
SUPER 8 is a small movie about a big subject, and other than certain alien-related moments (and the big train crash), I could imagine someone making a movie like this for very little money. The real drama in this story is not whether or not an alien can be wrangled or what it is it is trying to do now that it's free. I was far more unnerved by the scenes between Joe and his dad as they try to navigate the silences of their relationship with Joe's mom around any more. Jackson is convinced he would be a terrible single dad, but the look in Joe's eyes tells us he at least wants his father to try before shipping him off to camp for the summer. This film broke my heart several time, for all the right reasons. SUPER 8 is a film for people who remember that there was a time when it was okay to mesh science fiction and stories about caring people and families. You can't laud Spielberg in one breath and decry having your heart strings plucked forcefully in another; he used to do that all the time.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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