By Christopher Campbell | Spout June 20, 2011 at 5:08AM
"Super 8" opens on a safety scoreboard sign ("Days Since Last Accident: _____") at a steel plant, the number being changed to reflect a recent casualty. As we're reminded immediately, via the television, two months later the Three Mile Island accident occurred. And then a couple more months brings us to the film's primary narrative as an Air Force-owned train derails and unleashes a monster into that small Ohio town where the steelworker was killed. Bad things come in threes, of course, though the people of Lillian, OH, would not have experienced any of the problems of the Three Mile Island meltdown, which happened at least 200 miles away in central Pennsylvania. Instead this trio of accidents are layers rather than a grouping. The train derailment, with its subsequent military occupation and evacuation of Lillian, is a parallel for the nuclear plant disaster, while the steel mill figures in as both a lesser (in scope) and greater (in terms of immediate and personal life loss) correspondent. The message of the film: it's not others we have to fear; it's our own domestic misfortunes that will do us in first. Oh, and the literally stated: "bad things happen (shrug)."
One of the scariest things I learned from Lucy Walker's documentary "Countdown to Zero" is that on numerous occasions, the U.S. and other nations nearly blew themselves up with accidents involving nuclear warheads that very fortunately (sometimes miraculously) weren't as disastrous as they could have been. But it still could only take one more mishap to change that imaginary scoreboard -- currently counting 66 years without a catastrophic accident -- to a zero. The connection between "Super 8" and nukes is more evident when we think of it in context with Matt Reeves' far better "Let Me In." Though "Super 8" writer/director J.J. Abrams had nothing to do with Reeves' latest, as he had with "Cloverfield" and the TV series "Felicity," the temporal setting is key. And not just because of the shared reference to Rubik's Cube, which Abrams' film gets wrong (unless any of the kids had been in Hungary they wouldn't know what one was yet), or the 'Spielbergia' influence.
"Let Me In" also addresses internal dangers. For the "Let the Right One In" remake, the vampire thriller relocates to Los Alamos, New Mexico (somewhat incidental -- originally it was to be Colorado, but NM tax incentives changed this), home of the Manhattan Project and relatively near to where the first atomic bomb testing took place. The year of the action is 1983, determined by prominent feature of Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech. Specifically the section 'quoted' is the President's mention of America's own "legacy of evil" and "capacity for transcending" this past (for more on its significance, see Jim Emerson's essay on the film). The full speech, not seen in the film, would go on to reference proposals to put a freeze on nuclear arms and also the commandment for loving thy neighbor as thyself.
Those later points, as they figure into the context of the Cold War, relate even more to "Super 8," despite its taking place four years earlier, in the Carter era (right around the President and Brezhnev's signing of the SALT II treaty). Ultimately we're shown that the seemed bad guys are not completely or at all to blame. The guy who seems at fault for your steelworker wife's death is not, really. The monster/alien/foreigner who is destroying your town and killing people and seems more "Alien" (or "ID4") than "E.T." is apparently, deep down, as lovable and forgivable as the latter film's extra-terrestrial. Abrams (and Reeves, also) has dealt much in post-9/11 matters of disaster, trauma and grief, and despite his retro setting with "Super 8," it's possible that this film's themes are also applicable to our past decade as much as to 32 years ago. But is he implying that foreign terrorists are less to blame than our own accidental or incidental flaws, as in 9/11 is as much -- no, more so -- the fault of our lack of security and other domestic problems as the neighbor lashing out/back at us? Should we just let all our international prisoners go and move on?
"Super 8" at least lays on the message that our issues are often our own and we have to let go, if not necessarily forget, what's happened in the past. The ideas in the film are not entirely clear, however, if they're even well developed (I feel the script is more lazy than elusive), but I was made to recall, even more than anything Spielberg-made, the recent "X-Men: First Class," of which I previously noted the problem for Hollywood regarding an absence of easy foe following the Cold War and how that prequel and other new films are looking to the past for a recycling yet also re-imagining of the Soviets (and Nazis) as bad guys. And here the true threat is not the Russians but our own inner demons -- literally the creature locked up by the government who needs to be released, or the figurative issues of grief and fear and hatred that also need to be removed from our minds.
A comment is made in passing in "Super 8" that it might be the Russians causing all the weird things going on in Lillian. I was reminded of a line in "Attack the Block," the upcoming alien invasion romp that's also nostalgic of the 1980s, though less for direct Spielberg stuff than the creature features that were only slightly linked, such as "Critters" (a kind of knock off of the Spielberg-produced "Gremlins") and "Tremors" (co-written by two-time Spielberg collaborator Brent Maddock), not to mention the era's youth gang-oriented plots somewhat originating with but not exclusive to Spielberg (films like "The Goonies," "Stand by Me" and "Explorers" -- maybe even "Red Dawn" -- are also heavily felt throughout "Super 8"). In "Attack," as I've previously pointed out, a kid says the source of the creatures is likely the government, which is just throwing another killer into the hood, like what it did previously with drugs and guns. The joke there is that the film aims for more simplicity in its implications. It's really just evil aliens. In "Super 8," however, Abrams seems to allude, through that "must be the Russians" comment to early alien invasion (and zombie and pod people) sci-fi movies as allegories about the feared Communist threat while instead pointing fingers at the U.S. government.
Still, the film also wants to consider the idea that there's nobody to blame at all for the evils of the world. There are accidents and there are mistakes and there are sins, like those of America's past addressed by Reagan, that merely must be overcome and moved on from. I can only wonder what a true "Cloverfield" sequel should look like, then, since that movie (produced by Abrams, directed by Reeves), like "Super 8," melds classic nuclear-inspired monster movie ideas (particularly those of the "Godzilla" franchise) with contemporary events and themes (specifically the 9/11 attack on NYC). Will the Cloverfield Monster turn out forgiven and maybe, like Godzilla and the "Super 8" creature, wind up at least understood and allowed to be free, if not also a friend to man?
"Attack," which opens in the U.S. at the end of July, doesn't venture into such passive-minded territory. It may not put an origin to the evil creatures, but it maintains that there are threats, whether domestic or foreign, and regardless of source they must be defended against, perhaps on small scales with individual or limited-number groups. It's like how the "Red Dawn" remake can just be rewritten (even after filming) to allow the invading threat to be anyone. Despite what Hollywood seems to be doing with its nostalgic recycling of the easy Cold War black and white ideas of good and evil, and what it might wish to be doing as far as reworking those times for cloudy, graying visions, villainy can be found anywhere and everywhere whatever the setting.