SUPER 8 – J.J. Abrams
Some thoughts by Timothy Harvey
SUPER 8 is J.J. Abrams’ love letter to the early films of Steven Spielberg, and if you are old enough to have seen JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and especially E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL in theaters, odds are good you’ll find a pleasant sense of nostalgia watching this film.
There was a time when summer movies were something special. Studios didn’t put out as many films a year, and films played far, far longer at the theater. (Just for a bit of perspective, E.T. opened in June of 1982, and left theaters in June of 1983. Few films released these days play for more than few months… even TOY STORY 3, the highest grossing film of 2010, only played for 6 months.) The studios spent time and significant chunks of their budgets, sometimes banking the very future of the studio itself on these tent-pole films. They were event movies, and a lot of those 70’s and 80’s summer blockbusters are rightly regarded as classics. Of course, we didn’t know we’d be looking back at them from 2011 with the kind of nostalgia we do (and yes, I am most definitely old enough to remember seeing those films when they had their original theater runs… I stood in line to see SUPERMAN and STAR WARS when I was 8.), and there is a whole generation that doesn’t know how special going to the movies was in those days.
It’s changed. First VHS, then DVDs, the internet… movies are available so easily and so quickly now, but there was a time when going to the theater to see the latest film was a special night. You went with your family, you went with as many friends as you could get together, you looked forward to the popcorn and the soda and the candy. You didn’t talk during the film, although you might scream or laugh or cry out loud, along with hundreds of other people. It was a different time, and really not that long ago.
In the 70’s, a few young filmmakers were making names for themselves, and one of them was Steven Spielberg. From 1971 to 1979, he directed 5 films, including DUEL, JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and 1941, and by the end of the 80’s, he would have directed RAIDERS OF THE LAST ARK, E.T., TWILIGHT ZONE, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, THE COLOR PURPLE, EMPIRE OF THE SUN and INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. He wrote POLTERGEIST and THE GOONIES, and produced such films as GREMLINS, BACK TO THE FUTURE, and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. His films in the 90’s include JURASSIC PARK, SCHINDLER’S LIST and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. By the end of this year, he will have directed around 30 feature films, and since your reading this review on this site, I’m willing to bet you’ve seen a significant portion of the films I’ve listed, because Spielberg has been simply one of the best genre film directors of modern cinema. His films inspired a generation of writers and filmmakers and here, with SUPER 8, Abrams reminds us why.
J.J. Abrams has brought us a lot of genre films and television in the last few years. ALIAS, LOST, and FRINGE on tv, directing MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III and STAR TREK and producing CLOVERFIELD, but here is his first original movie as a director, and he shows that he knows his way around the subject. Even if it wasn’t designed to recall Spielberg, SUPER 8 would be a good film, and that it is, and doesn’t feel like a copy or a ripoff is a tribute to Abrams’ writing and direction.
One of the strengths of the best of Spielberg’s films are the characters, and here Abrams has assembled a truly wonderful cast of young actors, most of whom you haven’t seen before. The central character is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), who is dealing with a lot in the summer of 1979… his mother was killed in a factory accident and his police deputy father Jackson(Kyle Chandler) doesn’t know how to deal with his own grief, let alone his son’s. He’s doing makeup and effects on his friend Charles’ (Riley Griffiths) super 8 zombie film, and falling in love with Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the girl playing the wife of the detective in it. Complicating things, Alice’s father Louis (Ron Eldard) and Joe’s have a history, one Joe can’t see clearly, at least in the beginning. Louis and Alice’s relationship is also troubled, and the contrasts and connections of the two families, both missing mothers for different reasons, will unfold throughout the film.
On the first night Alice works on the film, she begins to connect with Joe as he, Charles and their friends shoot at a train station outside of town. There they will be witnesses to a terrible train wreck, and the mystery surrounding it, involving the military, residents and animals disappearing, and something that was on the train. Then the military arrives to secure the crash site…
That Abrams takes his time here is wise. While the story unfolds and the scares and tensions build, he spends the majority of the film on character development. Wether it’s the fledgling relationship between Joe and Alice, the interplay between Joe and Charles and their friends Cary, Martin and Preston, the sibling rivalry and chaos of Charles’ home life, the tensions of Alice’s life with her alcoholic father or the awkwardness of Joe’s own relationship with his dad, Abrams understands that if you don’t care about the characters and their lives, the events unfolding around them won’t have as much impact. Not everything works all the time: Alice and her father have moments where it seems that not only is he an alcoholic, but may be an abusive parent as well, and as such their arc feels a little rushed, but overall, the depth given to the characters is something one doesn’t see much these days in a monster movie.
And make no mistake, SUPER 8 is a monster movie. Again, the influence of the 70’s and Spielberg’s films is evident, and Abrams gives us scenes which would not have been out of place in JAWS or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, where what you didn’t see was as scary as what you did. When the reveal happens it’s in a scene that aside from happening on a bus on dry land calls back to three men on a boat. The military appears here as they did in E.T., only on a larger and darker scale, and one of the things I enjoyed about the film was the way that the villain of the story is dealt with. That’s a spoiler so I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that it doesn’t happen as you expect it to.
The recreation of 1979 is pretty impressive, and the look and feel of the film calls back to the filmmaking of the period nicely. The score is definitely worth commenting on, with the music of ELO and Debbie Harry making prominent appearances, and the feel of the score also calling back to the movies of the 70’s and early 80’s. The train wreck scene is frankly amazing, and the effects sequences are all impressive, building to a huge one at the end that evokes CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. The ending does have it’s issues, feeling a little rushed and leaving some fairly important subplots with little time to resolve, and if anything it’s the one area of the film that didn’t quite satisfy. Not that it’s a bad ending, but I think it needed more time.
There have been reviews calling this film “ET meets CLOVERFIELD”, and to some degree that’s true. The story is intentionally modeled after E.T. but without the cuddly alien, and the scale of the destruction and the focus on the effect of the monster on the characters for the majority of the film instead of on the monster itself certainly recalls Abrams’ CLOVERFIELD. But here Abrams does what he couldn’t quite do there, actually make us care about the characters. That he does is tribute to a solid script, but more so to the actors, especially the amazing young actors. While all of the them are excellent, truly, the standouts are Griffiths and Fanning, the former being the driven friend who is always in charge based on pure personality and vision, the latter playing the kind of pretty, smart and honest girl that many any teenage boy would fall for. Fanning in particular is wonderful, but still the film would have simply not has worked as well if Joel Courtney wasn’t as good as he is. Courtney is the core of the film, and wether showing the pain he feels over losing his mother, the confusion and frustration of dealing with his distant father, the bonds with his friends or his falling in love with Alice, Courtney makes it look like he’s not acting.
In making a movie that evokes Spielberg’s classic films, Abrams has given us something that will feel familiar in a positive way to older audiences, as well as appealing to younger audiences, and recalls a time when going to the movies was a big deal. It’s a callback to a sense of wonder, to a time when first loves and first loses were fresh and raw, and it looks at those days with humor and affection. It’s the kind of film you see on the big screen. It’s the kind of film you stand in line for.