Movies were a cultural force long before the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas came on the scene, but something happened to Hollywood at their hands that it’s still riding the coat tails of. After the political nihilism in cinema during most of the 70s maybe it was their homaging the simpler, more innocent themes of the matinee serials they loved in the 50s.
Or maybe they just knew how to make movies fun. It meant today’s directors grew up exposed to the wide-eyed wonder a movie screen could evoke, a sense of magic that hadn’t been around since their great grandparents gasped in amazement at silent five minute clips of steam trains.
But while most directors who hold the creative reigns today admit a large debt to the canons of both men, few can replicate it so lovingly and faithfully as JJ Abrams has with ”Super 8”. It’s a love letter to an era, conveyed in everything from the monster-in-a-small-town premise to the motif suggested by the very title. It’s a film in love with the concept of film.
There’s a scene early on – after the train crash you’ve seen in the trailer – where the young heroes cluster together on top of a boxcar to look over the destruction around them. Their dirty faces – the blood of just a few cuts and bruises – are wide-eyed in shock and fear in the firelight. Whether it was intentional or not, there’s a direct aesthetic connection back in time to Goonies with its theme of misfit friends whose love of adventure gets them into trouble. Abrams is channeling Spielberg (his executive producer) so perfectly he could have left his name off and we’d believe the latter had directed Super 8 in a heartbeat.
In fact, the central characters of Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths) are erstwhile stand-ins for Abrams and Spielberg themselves. The boys are making a schlocky zombie horror movie with Charles’ Super 8 camera for a film festival, and with their fake blood kit, model miniatures and dodgy script they only wish they had huge sets, explosions and special effects. Charles’ frequent catch cry whenever he’s roping his friends into doing something ridiculous or dangerous is ‘production values!!’
Abrams and Spielberg are those boys, but with resources and kudos Charles and Joe can hardly imagine. So where the gang scrambles to set up a shot late one night at the station when they realise there’s a train coming, Abrams can go as big as he wants. As they film the scene, Joe sees a pick-up truck way off in the darkness come speeding onto the tracks towards the train, and the cinema-shaking crash that results is awesome in scope, wreckage and explosions raining down on the gang as they scatter.
What they won’t realise until much later – after a series of strange phenomena have gripped the town and a secretive air force unit has closed an iron grip of control around the residents – is that something was on the train, and now it’s loose.
The guys just want to finish their film, and with Charles’ new accomplice in pretty local girl Alice (Elle Fanning), Joe’s feeling the first stirrings of young love. But around them, the town is falling apart in the face of a host of weird happenings and disappearances.
The movies you’ll hear talked about the most in relation to ”Super 8” are ”The Goonies” and ”ET” (with a liberal dose of ”Stand By Me”), and it’s stuffed full of the charm and sense of adventure of that entire era. Even though it’s set in 1979, the period aesthetic is so strong it could have been made in an alternate universe 1979 when they had CGI. It starts with the familiar but long absent Amblin Entertainment logo that accompanies Abrams’ Bad Robot ident and extends to almost every other facet of the movie.
The scramble of dialogue you hear from a bunch of excited kids is pitch perfect, and the casual swearing from young mouths trying to assert their adulthood could just as easily be coming from ”Back to the Future”’s Marty McFly, ”ET”’s Elliot or ”Gremlins”’ Pete Fountaine. Kids of today will enjoy the thrills and spills, but it’s possible only fortysomethings will appreciate the historical dimension.
Most importantly of all, ”Super 8” has something so few blockbusters of the last three decades manage even though they tipped their hats at the same progenitors – heart. The brilliant young cast, the small town location, the era and the premise are all so watchable and lovable it’s not even about the monster or money shots. When the creature’s finally revealed during the climax it’s just another computer-generated alien. Abrams, Courtney and Fanning get more emotion out of the scene of Joe nervously instructing Alice how to be a zombie, falling more in love with her with each dead-eyed, theatrical tilt of her head.
Even though they’re far from original, a checklist of Spielbergian themes frame the story. In the opening scenes we learn Joe’s loving mother has died in a factory accident, and it’s left to his deputy sheriff dad – who’s never been very affectionate – to take care of him. We know the time will come for Jackson (Kyle Chandler) to put his arms around his son in a show of love and that it’s going to be kind of sappy when it does, but the best of Spielberg’s aliens and adventures also means his sentimental themes of absent parents and kids escaping into make believe.
It even follows the lore he established by keeping the creature hidden until the final sequences, but everything else is so strong you hardly care when it shows itself. It’s a mere Macguffin to give Joe, Charles, Alice and the gang life and purpose and to transport us to another time and place that’s as comfortable as watching ”Raiders of the Lost Ark” or ”Close Encounters” over again.
Subsequent viewings will reveal all the film, horror, comic book and late 70s cultural references bursting at the seams, and a standout on DVD extras will be Charles’ hilarious finished film ”The Case” – it plays during the movie’s end credits sequence. But it’s tempting to believe even a first viewing that with so much adventure, love, laughs and excitement, ”Super 8” has everything, and that it’s the best film of 2011 so far.