I was 14-years old in 1979, a total film and book geek, and had recently discovered two storytellers whose tales both wooed and wowed me: Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. After the one-two punch of Jaws and Close Encounters, any new Spielberg film was cause for anticipation and excitement. Likewise after reading The Shining and The Stand, I was hooked on All Things King. These men both told fantastic tales, but their characters – often children from broken or abusive homes – were rooted in reality. As I came from a similar background, their stories not only thrilled me, but made me realize that I was not alone in my trials. They provided me with amusement, inspiration, and escape. For this I loved them both, and still do to this day.
Cut to 30 years later. When I first heard that JJ Abrams was writing and directing a movie entitled Super 8, which was to be an homage to the early films of Spielberg, I felt that old excitement blossom inside. JJ grew up during the same period as I, and was obviously enamored of both of these storytellers. (Abrams’ King obsession can be found in his TV series Lost, which he claims was based on King’s The Stand, and though he was long involved in bringing King’s Dark Tower series to the big screen, he recently gave up that ghost to Ron Howard.)
Having just seen Super 8, I can tell you that whatever expectations I had for this film were not only met, but exceeded.
The year is 1979, and 14-year-old Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney) just lost his mother in an steel mill accident. Joe’s father (Kyle Chandler), the town’s deputy sheriff, is also trying to get over this tragedy. Joe is a film geek (his room is replete with film posters and monster models), and is helping his friends shoot a Super 8 zombie movie. While they are shooting scenes at a local train station, the unthinkable happens, and a train crashes into it in spectacular fashion (… making the iconic train wreck in The Fugitive look quaint by comparison). Afterward, something pummels its way out of one of the train cars – something huge, and powerful, and pissed off. What could it be?
All of this can be gleaned from the trailer – no spoilers here – but what this train is carrying is much less important than the wounded characters who are affected by it. There is even a love story here. A first love story, as Joe slowly falls for the ingenue of their zombie movie, played to innocent perfection by Elle Fanning – soon to not only be known as Dakota’s little sister. Their relationship is sweet, complicated, and is really the heart of this movie. So is the severely damaged relationship between their fathers, but I will not spoil that here.
Nor do I want to spoil anything else, so I will focus on what this film is obviously trying to do. And that is pay homage to early Spielberg, and yes, Stephen King, too. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the two aforementioned Steves should both be a’blush with this high profile release. Super 8 brings to mind such Spielberg-directed films as Jaws, Close Encounters, and E.T.; such Spielberg-produced films as Gremlins and The Goonies; and such King titles as Stand By Me and IT. (I might throw a dash of Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant in there, too.) It succeeds in giving nods to these other works, while also carving out its own path.
I have read some scathing comments from those pesky internet haters (you know who you are) who despised this film, and called it a rip-off. This is to completely miss the point. (Hell, even Chuck Berry, whose classic rock and roll riffs have been blatantly “sampled,” is wont to say “There is nothing new under the sun,” for he had “sampled” them, too.)
I went to Super 8 hoping for a bit of the magic rush that I felt when I was a teenager going to, I’ll say … Raiders of the Lost Ark. As I write this article (June 12, 2011), it is, ironically enough, exactly 30 years to the day that Raiders was released – I was likely one of the first in line that day. And yes, it was magic (but you knew that). Does Super 8 live up to its admittedly risky ambition? Yes, it does. It is not as good as those films it seeks to emulate – how could it be? – but as a nostalgia piece, it works brilliantly. Having Spielberg himself as one of the producers on this movie certainly didn’t hurt.
Let me add a few words about JJ Abrams. After coming to fame as a screenwriter (Regarding Henry, Forever Young, JoyRide), and a successful foray into television (Alias, Felictiy, Lost), JJ made his leap into feature film directing with 2006’s Mission Impossible III – which I actually thought was the best of that series. In 2009, he rebooted Star Trek and, though that film had some pretty big loopholes in logic, I really enjoyed it as well. If you look back over those titles, it is fairly obvious that JJ is all about formula. However, it’s a REALLY GOOD formula, and he is getting better at mixing it up all the time. Said formula is all about balancing emotional beats with action and bombast, and with Super 8 he gets that mixture more right than ever before. This film is not perfect – it left some questions unanswered and some plot holes unfilled – but in simply trying to do a dance mix on some old favorites, it succeeds in spades. It does have a beat, and you can dance to it. This is JJ Abrams’ best film.
So, in fine, if you are burnt out on superheroes and sequels, long for a more innocent brand of filmmaking, and would like to revisit a simpler time (you know, when a text was something in a book, and a tweet was something a bird did), Super 8 is the ticket.
Oh, and make sure you stay through the end credits for a final reel-ization of this film’s title – it literally had the audience with which I saw this film cheering and applauding. Recommendations don’t come much higher than that.