I generally try to avoid making comparisons of films, simply because they’re abundant and it’s easy. However, in the case of Super 8, the latest mysterious thrillfest from J.J. Abrams, I’m forced to make one. Put inelegantly, this is Abram’s version of E.T. You’ve got kids on bikes, kids saying “shit” a lot, a curiously acrimonious government group, and, as the fulcrum, an alien far from home. This is not a retelling or a reimagining, so much as it is an homage to one of the greats and one of his great films (It probably didn’t hurt to have the “great” in question on set as a producer). Abrams certainly departs from Steven Spielberg’s classic coming-of-age; his film is darker and nastier, not nearly so light on violence or familial tension. But there’s no getting around it: Super 8 is cut from the same cloth as Spielberg’s 1982 Oscar winner, and for many, will cement the connection between these two wildly successful film nerds.
When 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) loses his mother to a freak factory accident, a spotlight shines on the gap between him and his father, Deputy Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler). Though Joe’s life at home is lonely and uncertain, his geeky friends Cary (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Basso) and the newly cast Alice (Elle Fanning) remain a joyful constant, and his best friend and Director Charles (Riley Griffiths) keeps Joe’s focus on their summer plans of making a movie. When filming a scene at the local railroad station, the boys witness a massive train wreck, and as the story unfolds, an abundance of other firsts.
Super 8 is set in 1979, a choice made either to lineup with the popularity of Romero’s Dead films (the boys are making a zombie film, with obvious references to Romero), or to allow Abram the full experience of reliving his childhood (the filmmaker was 14 that year). I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter, though I suppose the former was just another mythological element of young Abram’s formative years. Whatever the case, Super 8 is infused with the nostalgia of small town kids, and is a love letter to backyard filmmaking. While all of the young characters are well-developed, with quirks and traits and the ability to incessantly talk over one another, Charles and Joe feel like the strongest link to the young auteurs that Spielberg and Abrams surely were, and subsequently feel the most fleshed out. Joe in particular is a perpetually sweet kid, and big-eyed first timer Joel Courtney is perfectly cast.
What Spielberg has always been remarkably good at is creating a sense of wonder. This is tenuous, because taking spectacle too far can make a movie really bad, really fast. But somehow he always seems to be toeing the line, and his films more often than not are brimming with wonderment. This is an ambiguous concept, but one the average film goer knows when they see it. For my part, “wonder” can be quantified by a few varying elements: for instance, a story with a massive scale given a small scale point of view. This “one man vs. the big, nasty world” approach can be seen in nearly all of his films, and in a way, it’s the bridge between he and Abrams. Certainly Abrams’ films aren’t lacking for scale, and his point of view rarely shifts away from his chief protagonist, though admittedly, with Mission: Impossible 3 or Star Trek, his heroes are far more in control of their own destinies. Here though, Abrams presents us with Joe Lamb, a definitively inexperienced kid who is forced into heroism and destiny. This is the bond between much of Spielberg’s work and Abrams’ Super 8, and more than that, it is the strongest choice Abrams’ makes with his third film.
This is an ambitious summer movie season, with a studio tentpole released pretty much every week. Having made my way to a number of them already, I can say assuredly that this is my favorite thus far. Super 8 can be a bit sloppy, and is very proud of its admittedly strong effects work, even if it can be a bit silly-the alien in particular is too anthropomorphic-but this is a genuinely fun film, and shows Abrams departing just a bit from his past work. This may be the most passionate entry into the young director’s filmography, with clear references to childhood and his love of movie making. Whatever else it may be, it is surely the strongest ligament between J.J. Abrams and his filmmaking idol.