The cinemascape of my childhood consisted almost entirely of the imaginations of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Spielberg in particular looms large in my memories: the Indiana Jones movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., the Goonies, Back to the Future. All of these happily abide in my nostalgic “oh but you can go home again” movie section. These two giants went on to make any number of powerfully influential movies, but Spielberg’s movies, for that golden period that bridged the late 70s to the early 80s, have a timbre, an innocence, and a joi de vivre entirely their own.
I had reconciled to the fact that to experience that Spielberg-esque feeling, I would have to raid my DVD collection, throw on some jammies and curl up on the couch. Then, J.J. Abram, who apparently possesses the same love for that time that I do, dreamed up Super 8. I can only try and describe this movie as part E.T., part The Goonies, part Close Encounters, with a dash of Jaws thrown in. If you see that description as anything other than the most glittering endorsement, this movie might not be for you.
I want to say up front, there are plot holes. There are moments that are utterly unbelievable, but that doesn’t diminish what all this film does right. The single greatest achievement here is the cast.
The story centers around a group of kids (very Spielberg) in a small Ohio town in 1979. Our protagonist is the young Joe Lamb, played beautifully by newcomer Joel Courtney. His dad is the sheriff (the always exemplary Kyle Chandler), and his mother recently died in a tragic accident, which is where this film begins. Abrams clearly understood the empathic power of Courtney’s doe-eyes, and uses them on the audience frequently and to wonderful effect. Charles, Cary, Martin, and Preston round out the gang of kids who are trying to film a zombie movie using a Super 8mm camera, thus the name.
They recruit a young girl from their school named Alice to co-star in the movie. Elle Fanning turns in a bravura performance as the girl from a broken home, daughter to an alcoholic father. When she joins the boys at a railroad depot outside of town to film a night sequence, everything goes awry when a pick up truck slams into an oncoming train, causing a calamitous wreck virtually on top of the kids. They escape, and miraculously, so does their video camera, which recorded the entire ordeal.
Chaos follows them back into town as people disappear, dogs run away, electronic equipment goes haywire. The military are involved, and are not to be trusted. It is of no point to go further into the story. By and large, it holds together well, serving as a delivery vehicle for over-the-top special effects and action sequences, and some wonderful performances from the cast.
With Abrams directing, he makes choices I can only call ballsy. In two specific instances, he lets the camera linger for several minutes, close-up on Courtney’s and Fanning’s faces. Nothing else occupies the frame but a young face, and every microscopic reaction to the emotional trauma he or she is living through. It’s gutsy filmmaking when you have Oscar-winning talent on hand, but to do so when you have not only green stars, but incredibly young ones, it would be disastrous where it not for the astonishingly nuanced performances these two teens turned in.
Courtney and Fanning carry the emotional weight of the story remarkably well, and have a marvelous rapport that effortlessly causes you to care deeply for them and how this will all pan out. Chandler is once again brilliant here, and continues to prove he is the most under-appreciated actor out there. At this point, I will pay to watch this man read an organic chemistry textbook. He has all of the charm, the charisma, the good looks, and the like-ability to be an A-list celebrity. Here’s hoping Hollywood has finally taken note.
When people ask me what my favorite movies are, I have my “critic” list, which is filled with movies of exceptional artistic and technical merit, and my “sentimental” list, which is filled with movies I just flat out love, despite their imperfections. The Lord of the Rings movies occupy spaces on both. Spielberg has films on both. Super 8, the glorious homage to the era of the birth of the blockbusters and the man who helped create them, sits firmly on my sentimental list. It is far from perfect, but it has remarkable heart, tremendous actors, and just the right dose of nostalgia. In very many ways, it is the perfect summer flick, at home in 1981 or 2011.