So inundated by the influence of Steven Spielberg is J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 that it even winds up bearing its imitator’s strengths and weaknesses. Chief among them: Spielberg was always better at developing a conflict than he was at resolving it, and here Abrams displays finesse in slowly characterizing his central cast of suburbanites but is incapable of bringing those characterizations full circle with the same degree of subtlety and complexity. Instead, the buried grief, insecurity, and guilt shared between two widowed fathers – Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) and the boozing lowlife Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) – as well as the other social tensions, both natural and imposed, existing in this small Ohio town in the late 1970’s, are lazily allegorized by an abstract monster terrorizing the town, who coincidentally relieves all their pressures when he leaves Earth in the final a-ha moment. Yet, curiously, Super 8 is one of the rare films to actually not be weighed down by its ultra-transparent idolatry and fetishism, in this case of monster movies, small-town coming-of-age dramas, and of course, the Spielberg hits of yesteryear. This is a film so earnestly smitten with its coursework that it organically incorporates it into its DNA.
One needs to look no further than the film’s first act, which is the kind of riveting, economical set-up a summer blockbuster should have. When we first see the Deputy’s son Joe (Joel Courtney), he’s sitting alone at a swing set in the middle of winter caressing a necklace passed down from his recently deceased mother. At first he’s just seen from afar, and it is only when Louis shows up at the house, presumably to deliver some sort of news to Joe’s father about his mother, that Abrams cuts in to alternate between tight shots of Joe’s inquisitive glances and Louis’ deliberate avoidance of eye contact. Without using a single word, the scene establishes both Joe’s consuming sadness and the tension between his family and Mr. Dainard that eventually sends a knife through the blossoming friendship and potential romance of Joe and Louis’ daughter Alice (Elle Fanning).
There’s an evocative despair in Abrams’ initial establishing shot despite the tired cliche of transporting the weight of sadness and loss through lovingly shot close-ups of a piece of jewelry, and his willingness to sell the scene’s emotional undercurrents through visuals alone goes a long way. Shortly thereafter, there’s a moment when Joe comes home and witnesses his father fighting back tears in the bathroom for a split second. Once again, nothing is spoken besides his father’s curt “I’ll be out in a minute”. Abrams offers visual shorthand in these scenes that is able to cut right to the heart of the drama without being too reductive or archetypal, and it also gets across the idea that Joe is the one living these scenes, that they’re filtered through his naive perspective.
Incidentally, perspective winds up playing a critical role in the narrative, as it just so happens that the lurid movie scenarios that Joe and his friends love and incorporate into their own amateur Super 8 productions start to crop up around them. The movies quickly overlap with reality, and the film convincingly portrays the playfully skewed worldview of a youth culture weened on gaudy George A. Romero movies. Joe’s pudgy friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is in the middle of production on his magnum opus (a daft and histrionic zombie short that plays in its entirety over the credits) and he regularly turns to Joe for his unmatched skill as a makeup artist and model-builder.
The whole crew heads out late at night in Louis’ car, stolen by Alice, to shoot a departure scene between husband and wife at a train station. Alice is afraid of getting caught by her father, so she initially expresses hostility towards Joe, but when Joe applies her makeup a spark ignites between them whilst the banter of amateur filmmakers animates the background (one little bucktoothed Michael Bay (Ryan Lee) keeps arguing for the addition of explosives to the scene). The sudden arrival of a real train some few hundred yards down the track sets Charles in a directorial frenzy, giddy over the opportunity for “production value”, and as such the crew shoddily throws together the set to miraculously start shooting as the train roars past the station. During the scene, however, Joe spots a stray pickup truck kicking up dust as it flies towards the train coming from the opposite direction.
The ensuing collision sets in motion a violent and prolonged explosion, which, with its flailing of shrapnel and series of fiery clouds, would have satisfied our little Michael Bay had the crew been prepared to film it while running away. It’s a shockingly effective piece of spectacle and a killer inciting incident, visceral and unexpected in its impact, a bold contrast to all the quiet drama leading up to it. So frightening, even, that when Joe and Charles spot the story on the news the next day and refer to it as looking like “a disaster movie”, it offers a sharp realization on the boys’ part of the cinema’s sheer exploitation of real, palpable terror. Abrams never quite digs deeply into this tentative ethical subtext, but it’s there nonetheless, if only for a moment suggesting that these boys’ seemingly innocent adoration for explosive spectacle and their preoccupation with themes of murder and gore (even in the goofy context of zombies) comes from a true and scary place. That the kids uncover a string of mysterious details in the smoky remains of the collision – a box of weird metal cubes that seem to serve no practical purpose, loud rumblings from an invisible force behind one of the train cabs, and their high school science teacher armed and bloodied in the driver’s seat of the pickup truck – only augments their feeling of getting in way over their heads.
It also lays the groundwork for the film’s somewhat emptily intricate foundational subplot, a backstory of government conspiracy and extraterrestrial interventionism that collides somewhat awkwardly with the central character drama. Abrams runs himself into a corner by finally revealing the source of all those loud rumblings in the debris, a hideous alien-monster that forces him to dish out the unnecessarily complicated exposition detailing why the thing’s on Earth and why the police and the Air Force are going to such great lengths to manipulate the townsfolk (even staging an outer-city wildfire to evacuate the entire suburb). Not only does it introduce a level of specificity to the plot mechanics that is rather unsatisfying, it also, as is typical of this kind of reveal, takes the piss out of the monster whom Abrams began by showing, in characteristic Lost fashion, solely through its effect on the environment. Had the monster remained an abstraction, as it did in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (a primary influence here) it would have better represented the feelings of the confused townsfolk, the idea that the monster was merely a symbol of both government conspiracy and tensions between characters. But the truth is that Abrams didn’t go that route, and the inevitable reveal of the monster is as much an accessible studio move as it is an aesthetic decision, because it’s clear that Abrams likes the wild intercutting and information overload of his high-adrenaline third act, to which I simply wonder what might have been.
Yet even as Super 8 starts to veer off the rails of believability, there’s a propulsive energy to its filmmaking that keeps it thrilling. Abrams seems to have absorbed Spielberg’s stylistic as well as narrative chops here, evidenced by his gifted ability to build a scene, to establish a sense of space and suspense. His camera, of the Mizoguchi school of thought, is in perpetual motion, performing pirouettes around the characters and often times just punctuating a faint gesture or facial expression with a swooping crane shot to capture the kinetic energy that has erupted in the town. This is filmmaking with a capital F, the kind that overstates every emotion onscreen through its technique to the point of achieving a paradoxical intimacy, a sense of being privy to anything and everything these characters feel and think.
Even the film’s ubiquitous lens flares, now a continuing source of mild criticism towards the director, are inscribed with purpose: for a film about the wonder and glee of making not just any old movies, but films, it’s constantly drawing attention to its own nature as a film as well as its position as a throwback to the heyday of Spielberg or Romero, where these kinds of flourishes were often technical blemishes rather than choices. It’s perhaps that honesty and genuineness towards the sense of time and place and inspiration, more than anything else, that makes Super 8 not just a flimsy attempt to recreate a bygone era but actually a work that moves freely and comfortably within that era.