Had I not seen Midnight in Paris a week prior to seeing J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, then my opinions regarding nostalgia may have gone unchanged. While the idea of nostalgia is challenged in Woody Allen’s newest comedy by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein that doesn’t dissuade Owen Wilson’s character from imagining what it must have been like to be a writer in Paris during the 1920s. But then I came across a quote from Gertrude Stein that really hit home.
“We are always the same age inside.”
Think about it and apply it to the films you’ve seen. Chances are you hold the films of a specific period in higher regard than others. That’s how it is for most. Which is why, thanks to Ms. Stein, I can admit with utmost certainty that I’m not waxing nostalgia when I look back at a movie from the 1980s, my childhood. Instead, I’m just adhering to my inner age.
That’s the impression you get from Super 8, Abrams’ self-described love letter to Steven Spielberg films of yesteryear. Certain viewers will get it more so than others. It is that rare summer blockbuster release that isn’t a sequel, or a re-boot, or an adaptation of something that has come before. It is a thinly-veiled original story with callbacks to many of Spielberg’s earlier works. Not done in mocking fashion but meant to bring back that aura of childhood wonderment. Abrams plays on the notion of filmmakers that have come before him who were storytellers that were themselves influenced by those who came before them. He’s just continuing where his predecessors left off. But here’s the $10,000 question viewers must consider: where does the homage to Spielberg end and where does Abrams begin to make his own mark?
Super 8, set in 1979, follows six Ohio teens brought together for the common goal of making a zombie movie. Presumably inspired by George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, released a year prior to their own zombie movie-making, one night the teens sneak out at midnight to shoot a pivotal scene at a nearby train station. There the environment is quiet and free of adult supervision, which is not unlike the mood felt by twelve-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courntey), who functions as the film’s makeup expert. Not yet corrupted by his teenage years, Joe experiences two firsts within a few months of each other. The first is grief (the passing of his mother). The second is love (he’s smitten with the only girl among the six teens, Alice, as played by Elle Fanning). They take their marching orders from Charles (Riley Griffiths), a pudgy teen director full of gusto who loves to interject the word “mint” whenever something strikes his fancy. Cary (Ryan Lee) is a teenage pyromaniac in charge of special effects involving explosions, and by explosions that means fireworks, not C-4. Can’t really afford the good stuff with a week’s worth of saved milk money. As for the others in the group, Preston (Zach Mills) handles the lighting while Martin (Gabriel Bosso) is the main actor.
The shoot is progressing well. Joe powders Alice’s face, adoring her angelic presence, while he begins to perspire. Standing that close to a crush and touching her face – it was bound to happen. That small trickle of perspiration breaks out to a full sweat when disaster strikes. A train derails right in front of them in spectacular fashion, with railroad cars breaking a part and falling in all different directions. Was the derailment an accidental occurrence or deliberate act? Why does the U.S. Air Force, led by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), flock to the location without much delay? And what’s the deal with the creature inside a mystery boxcar? (Not really a spoiler since the ads all but pointed to a monster of some kind.)
With a monster on the loose, Abrams recalls Spielberg’s less is more approach from Jaws. Various bodies are snatched in the blink of an eye without so much as a glimpse, including one episode where a gas station attendant sporting a Walkman (it’s like the iPod of yesterday!) has his legs pulled out from under him and he is dragged out the store – the camera avoids the action and focuses on a revolving gas station sign. Abrams was deliberate to obscure the creature, unlike Jaws, where the prop shark would illicit laughter, not scares. So Spielberg went with a shark fin and John Williams’ Da-dum score. And the rest, as they say, is history.
As much as the ads would lead you to believe, the escaped monster is the B-story, secondary to the bigger story, that of the kids. Much of the first reel is spent on the kids and getting to know their little quirks. The kids are Super 8‘s strength – that youthful exuberance that doesn’t shy away from danger. Even when best friends Joe and Charles have a small but contentious spat for Alice’s attention you know that no deep resentment between the two exists. There’s also a contrast in home life that weighs heavily with some of the teens, specifically Joe and Alice. Joe’s father, Jack (Kyle Chandler), is a deputy sheriff recently made a single father. Alice’s father, Louis (Ron Eldard), is a drunkard who has run-ins with the law. The problem is that Abrams attempts, and ultimately misfires, when he tries to mesh the human element with the danger element. The kids are fine, but the story arc with the deputy sheriff investigating is pretty weak. Chandler, who personified one of the best TV dads in Friday Night Lights, is one-note and a missed opportunity. Instead of being a major factor, he becomes more of a plot device.
Like The Goonies and other young adult-centered films of the ‘80s populated by child actors, Super 8 succeeds with its young stars. Elle Fanning steps out of her older sister’s shadow and forges her own identity. This film will get her noticed. Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths, both making their professional debuts, have the right mix of poise and charisma for their ages.
Stripping away the Spielbergian veneer of Super 8 and you are left with two stories that don’t complete one another as they should, showing that Abrams, even after helming two films already part of franchises (Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek), is still experimenting. That was Spielberg in his youth. And that is Abrams now. Super 8 is an entertaining affair, that’s a fun, nostalgia trip to a bygone era of cinema, but one that doesn’t quite forge its own identity.
Writer/Director: J.J. Abrams Notable Cast: Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!