My notes on J.J. Abrams’ film.
A lot of the reviews have evoked The Goonies (a film I found strident and irritating when it came out and haven’t seen since) but Super 8 strikes me as closer in its tone to a couple of less commercially successful films pitched slightly more at the Aurora Hobby Kit/Famous Monsters sub-culture, Joe Dante’s Explorers and Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad. Like The Goonies, it was produced by Steven Spielberg – but here he seems almost like a patron rather than a creative, since Super 8 is also a homage to Spielberg’s beginnings as a teenage filmmaker and his run of genre-defining sci-fi/small town sense-of-wonder pictures. Like Cloverfield, which was produced by writer-director J.J. Abrams, this starts off as a small-scale, improv-seeming indie comedy of observation, about a bunch of Ohio small town kids making a homemade zombie movie in 1979, and then pulls out special effects stops to turn it into a giant monster-action-disaster picture.
The opening section is so well done, from the affecting first shot (a workman changing a ‘days since the last accident’ sign in the foundry), that the movie could almost do without the escalation into big-ticket genre summer movie, though that may be a reflection on the generally poor state of scripting, acting and emotional investment in, say, the Transformers films rather than a critique of what Abrams does here. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), the young protagonist, has lost his Mom in the accident and can’t quite connect with his father (Kyle Chandler), a deputy who left childcare to his wife … but is drawn into the orbit of big, busy, slightly bullying junior visionary director Charles (Riley Griffiths), who’s toiling over his festival entry movie, The Case. Joe, who paints his Aurora Quasimodo and studies his Dick Smith’s Monster Make-Up book, is doing effects and make-up for The Case, which stars the earnest Preston (Zach Mills) as a gumshoe and Alice (Elle Fanning) – a girl! – as his wife. The swirl of not-really-teenage emotions around Alice are well-observed – the boys are so impressed by Charles’ daring in asking a girl to work on the film that they never mention it, though a split opens between Joe and his best friend when it turns out that Alice likes him more than the director. There’s also bad blood between Deputy Lamb and Alice’s father (Ron Eldard) that complicates their kids’ relationship.
Frankly, I’d have been happy with this as a film – on the scale of Stand By Me, but with 1979 references (that was longer ago than 1958 was when Rob Reiner made Stand By Me). But the kid stuff continues even when things go into overdrive. During a night-shoot at an out-of-the-way railway halt, Charles is happy to film a scene with a train passing in the background (‘production values’) only for a science teacher (Glynn Turman) to drive his truck onto the tracks and cause a spectacular pile-up that spills a ton of whitish Rubik’s cube things and allows something to escape from a sealed carriage. Then, the army – led by a ruthless officer (Noah Emmerich) – show up and do an end-run around local law enforcement … the sheriff gets eaten by something, which bumps Joe’s Dad up to head man while landing him with even more problems … and Alice is snatched. The monster is an alien who has been held captive (and tortured) in Area 51 and wants to rebuild his ship and leave – this is a scrambling of elements from It Came From Outer Space, Close Encounters and ET, but with a war on terror vibe as ‘our side’ has acted so monstrously that the stranded creature is essentially justified in wrecking the town and eating people (Cloverfield was similarly cynical about the US military response to an alien). Of course, this is a kid wish-fulfillment film, albeit with hard action, so Joe steps up and becomes a hero, running about and rescuing his girl from the underground lair – just as his father proves himself worthy in coping with the crisis and resolving his ‘issues’ with his son and the girl’s family.
Too many big effects movies lately have had zero emotional content, and thus turn into a riot of pixels with loud sound effects. This takes the opposite approach, and risks alienating audiences who want more goodies up front and wonder why there has to be all this character development. Also, it wins points simply for not being a remake, a reboot or a sequel, or derived from a comic, a toy line or an amusement part ride. It’s, you know, a movie. The monster design is impressive, but the creature plays all the better for being withheld from full view for an unfashionable stretch of the running time. The end credits include the full version of The Case, which is charming and fairly convincingly the product of smart kids.