Contributor: Henry T.
Written and Directed by JJ Abrams
WARNING: Spoilers to follow. DO NOT read unless you have already seen the film in question!
It’s my belief that “Super 8″ is the culmination of every major Hollywood production that JJ Abrams has been involved with to this point. It started with “Felicity”, which built to “Alias”. “Alias” led to “Lost”, which led to “Mission: Impossible 3″, the test balloon for movie studios to see if Abrams could handle a major Hollywood motion picture as the head man in the director’s chair. That film led to “Cloverfield” (of which he was a producer) then “Star Trek”. Abrams put everything he learned to this point into “Super 8″, and it shows. Those of us extremely familiar with Abrams’ work should feel completely at home with this film. His trademarks are right there: characters with potent daddy issues, a mystery in a box, and how regular people react to the strange events that occur when that box is opened and the mystery is unleashed. That is, essentially, what the entirety of “Super 8″ — an incredibly entertaining film otherwise — is about: how the characters’ worldview is rocked and turned on its axis by an incredible event. Even if you’re not familiar with Abrams’ work, the imprints of that philosophy are right there for everyone to see.
“Super 8″ is a fairly simple story to begin with: A group of teenage kids live in a small Ohio town and are trying to make an amateur film on a Super 8mm camera about zombies as an entry into a film festival. While filming a key scene at a train station, an Air Force freight train derails right in front of them when a truck takes it head-on. The crash releases the train’s mysterious alien cargo since it came to Ohio by way of Area 51 in Nevada. The creature’s release affects the nearby town and its residents.
That may be a very simple explanation of the meat of the plot, but as with any JJ Abrams production, it’s not all that it seems to be. There’s a tragic event at the beginning of the film that will reverberate throughout the rest of it. Joe (Joel Courtney) begins at a silent distance from his stern sheriff father, Jack (Kyle Chandler) because of his mother’s death. That void between them is filled by Joe helping out his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) complete his zombie 8mm film. Joe is trying to stay engaged during the making of the film while still mourning this hole in his life. Charles seems likeable at first when he is producing this film he’s in control of. For instance, he asks pretty girl Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the only female role in the film since both he and Joe like the same girl. Once the train crash occurs, Alice gravitates towards Joe, bonding because she feels sorry for him.
The crash and the resulting traumatic extraterrestrial events magnifies every one of their mindsets: Charles becomes a bossy, bullying petty best friend who was jilted by the homecoming queen; Joe is the silent, kind hero type, able to use his pain of losing his mother to get the girl as well as resolve the crisis at hand. Someone like Cary (Ryan Lee), who might have become an anti-social pyromaniac, might well end up being a decent military officer in the future. All of the characters react in different, interesting ways as the film progresses. That each of the teenage boys don’t blend together as some ordinary archetype demonstrates a key talent from Abrams to create and coax performances out of those young actors. It’s something many directors simply do not have.
I marveled at how well Abrams was able to get these kinds of performances from these teenage actors. Teenagers and child actors are notoriously difficult to manage in a major motion picture, yet Abrams keeps the film from sinking because of the young cast. Especially considering that they are basically the movie. There are adults on the fringes, but the teenage cast carries the bulk of the film.You’re seeing most everything through their eyes. They aren’t stock characters either. They have personality and depth. I mean, Alice could have been the token pretty girl in the narrative (and the film does little to dispute that notion), but it ends up that she has this untapped natural ability to act in movies.
She’s given the 8mm movie’s script for one scene on the fly and, in an instant, brings out this affecting performance. We see later that Alice has this tearful confession to Joe that is so heartfelt and sincere and shows the kind of pain she has had to deal with at the hands of her drunkard father that it explains why she’s so good at acting. “Super 8″ is full of that kind of stuff at nearly every turn. This focus on the teenagers ironically shortchanges the adult characters. Chandler’s Jack character is bland and his motivations are a little murky. One moment, he and Joe are angry with each other and has a screaming match, then Jack runs around looking for Joe when Joe’s not missing. It’s odd. There’s ominous Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) who turns out not to be the threat that he seemed to be. The kids are the center of the story and the adults stay on the sideline. I appreciated that they never try to force anything beyond that.
The extraterrestrial elements of the film are going to be the main draw for this film, but it felt to me like an afterthought by the end. That’s not a bad thing to me. Abrams is well-known for presenting a good mystery in a box, then showing that it was never really about what was in the box. That has the potential to disappoint people since it feels like a cheat (see the full run of “Lost”), but it worked for me here. The alien is shown as a shadowy, dirt-filled, ill-defined creature. We never get a full look and explanation as to what the alien is. Its technology only disrupts electrical power and has inklings of empathetic powers.
It’s not particularly original or complete, but I would argue that’s not really the point. The alien is just there to get the story into active crisis mode and work from there. Here’s my theory: the creature is related to the shadowy creature that attacked Manhattan island in “Cloverfield”. They look relatively similar, they emit a scary guttural noise that sounds incredibly similar, they dwell below ground (below Earth here; below sea in “Cloverfield”). It fits because the government and military is involved in both stories. Both “Super 8″ and “Cloverfield” showed how an extraterrestrial event affected regular people.
This may not read as a review of “Super 8″ so much as an appreciation for what JJ Abrams has done thus far in his career. It felt, to me, like Abrams was having a conversation with the film’s audience. He made films like Charles’ low-budget flick (which has a great nod to the George Romero zombie film “Dawn of The Dead” during the end credits) when he was young and growing up in the era the film depicts. So it feels like a very personal film for him.
What’s amazing is that the things he presented in this film aren’t particularly original, but he makes them feel as fresh as ever. The film’s story is rooted in the 1970′s, yet the film feels entirely modern. Okay, the ending is rather pat, but there’s a nice sense of wonder to it, aided by Michael Giacchino’s wonderful as usual musical score. Yes, the daddy issues keep popping up in his work with more regularity, but that somehow proved integral to the narrative of the film. Abrams has incorporated everything that he has learned in Hollywood, thrown it into a blender, and put it into “Super 8″. He does all of this better than most. Master filmmaker Steven Spielberg had to be involved a bit in the look and feel of the film, and there are nods to Spielberg’s early films (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” in particular), but it’s JJ’s show. It works very well and I was entertained throughout. It’s the best you could ever ask for in a sea of film adaptations and sequels that feel so plain and rote most times. I wish more films like this were made these days.