Spoiler warning: I discuss the mysterious contents of the train in my review.
J. J. Abrams’ Super 8 is more than just a nostalgic tribute to the early works of Steven Spielberg. Abram’s film certainly contains many visual and thematic cues, such as beams of light, summer night skies, and noisy family scenes, which all bring to mind Spielberg’s E.T. or Close Encounters. Abrams also displays a similar (though less natural) command of spectacle and talent for conjuring both fear and wonder. Despite this, Super 8 is not primarily a work of nostalgia: it is a movie about making movies.
A key to understanding the film may lie in an early hurried exchange between the two central boys, Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths). Charles, the director of the 8mm movie the boys are working on over the summer, explains to Joe, his makeup and FX artist, that he has added a wife character to the script. Joe asks why. Charles explains that if you show that the two main characters love each other then people will care about what happens to them. This idea, that good characters and strong relationships between them make a good movie, is what I believe Super 8 is all about. Super 8 says that summer blockbusters need good characters and relationships—in other words, they need to tell good stories—in order for the thrills to really work. Then it shows how this is done.
To create a new example of this kind of quality studio filmmaking, writer/director J. J. Abrams looks back to the early works of Steven Spielberg, from the late 1970s and early 80s, for inspiration. Spielberg’s Jaws, the first summer blockbuster, is certainly a work of great suspense, but at the centre of the film is the complicated relationship between Chief Brody, Hooper, and Quint. Likewise, the success of E.T. owes to the realistic children it portrays as well as its archetypal story. Summer blockbusters today are, at the very worst, soulless, corporately manufactured swill, and even the decent ones like Thor are the product of calculation, compromise, and marketing, not heart.
The story and the characters are what make Super 8 a good movie (and a better one than The Goonies, I’ll add). We actually care about these young adolescents as they work on their movie and try to unravel the mysterious events taking place in their town. We care because Abrams takes the time to make us care. The kids seem real. Time is given to show their normal interactions, to reveal their loves, fears, and desires, before we follow their adventures.
In other areas, the film is average. The action sequences are exciting but not stupendous. I did not like the creature’s design, an ugly assemblage of limbs, and it makes that throaty clicking noise that every monster in a movie does nowadays. Furthermore, our response to the extraterrestrial creature, which switches back and forth between terror and sympathy, is haphazardly guided. I think the first half or so of Super 8 is amazing, but the second half does not fulfill all of the film’s potential.
Super 8 is not a masterpiece, but it is an important reminder of how summer movies were once made, and how they still can be. It is an indirect criticism of today’s blockbuster filmmaking. It is not just a sugary slice of nostalgia. It is a statement. But it is not just saying, I miss the good old days. It says: this is how we can make movies like the good old days today—with passion, humility, and heart.
8 out of 10
Super 8 (USA, 2011)
Written and directed by J. J. Abrams; starring Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, and Riley Griffiths.