If you’re wondering what’s missing from so many big-budget, effects-driven Hollywood movies, the answer lies in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8: heart and passion. What’s happening onscreen really matters to the young people in the story—so it matters to us, too. Moreover, there’s no cynicism or aloofness in these characters or the way they’re depicted. Just look at the face of newcomer Joel Courtney, who plays the leading role in Super 8, and you see the kind of guileless all-American boy we don’t find too often in contemporary films.
It isn’t coincidental that the story takes place in 1979, before the age of Twitter and texting. That’s also the period in which Steven Spielberg captured the imagination of moviegoers around the world with such impassioned films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Abrams is unabashedly emulating—
—Spielberg here, and had the benefit of his input as this movie’s hands-on producer, but Super 8 never feels recycled or second-hand.
It does feel “old-school,” and whether or not that will play with today’s younger audiences remains to be seen…but I had an awfully good time watching the movie and rekindling emotions I haven’t felt in a Hollywood movie for quite some time.
Super 8 hearkens back to a time when kids embarked on the adventure of making home movies without the benefit of digital cameras or Final Cut Pro. (Here, Abrams is summoning up his own childhood and drawing on first-hand recollections of making movies with his friends.) The setting is a steel-mill town in Ohio, and the protagonist is a boy whose mother has recently died in a tragic accident, leaving him and his father, a deputy sheriff, to fend for themselves without her loving care. Getting involved in his best friend’s movie projects is a perfect release for young Joe, all the more so when his pal invites a girl from school (whom he’s never had the nerve to talk to) to be their leading lady. She’s played by the remarkable Elle Fanning, who manages to fit in perfectly with her less experienced costars.
Paralleling this facet of the movie is a monster-on-the-loose plot, complete with military cover-up. It begins with the amateur moviemakers shooting at a train station late one night and bearing witness to a cataclysmic train wreck. (Spielberg has often mentioned his indelible boyhood memory of seeing Cecil B. DeMille’s spectacular train wreck in The Greatest Show on Earth, and even used a clip of the scene in his War of the Worlds. Now he and Abrams have actually topped it.)
The monster subplot reveals the mindset of someone who grew up on 1950s and 60s science-fiction and understands the precept first voiced by King Kong’s creator, Merian C. Cooper, who said the best way to hook an audience was to remember the 3 d’s: keep your creature distant, difficult, and dangerous..
I realize that Super 8 may sound like little more than a patchwork of earlier generations’ movies. That’s not entirely inaccurate, but it’s much too glib, like accusing Quentin Tarantino of merely stitching together riffs from genre movies he loves. Like Tarantino, Abrams has soaked up popular culture like a sponge, and while he naturally calls on tropes from movies and television shows he’s seen, he is also a skillful storyteller who knows how to layer action and thrills onto a bedrock of emotional truth. That’s what makes Super 8 so satisfying.