Produced by Steven Spielberg (and sporting the iconic Amblin’ Entertainment logo that appeared on the director’s eighties films), J.J. Abrams’ paean to Spielberg’s vintage fantasy fodder is a near-perfect in capturing the ambiance of kids being confronted by an out-of-this-world experience while all adults fail to grasp the severity of what’s at stake. It’s also a very clever reworking of the plot from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Spielberg’s own mythic childhood as an active and inventive filmmaker who honed his skills using the Super 8 film format before making his big splash in TV.
Abrams nails the atmosphere of a small town nestled in a valley, and although filmed in gorgeous West Virginia, from the camera angles of the bustling town to the nighttime shots looking down at the electrified suburban homes, Abrams clearly evokes the Californian urban sprawl in classics such as E.T. and Poltergeist [M] (1982). Composer Michael Giacchino similarly pays homage to John Williams, and the cast of kids are played by an able group of young actors, each representing familiar kid archetypes: Martin (Gabriel Basso), the brilliant, misunderstood burgeoning director; Joe (Joel Courtney), the quiet kid who’s able to assert himself through makeup and special effects and get the girl; and the usual assorted friends with big glasses, braces, unevenly proportioned hair and facial features specifically arranged for audience amusement.
Through the Abrams filter, Super 8 is much darker than Spielberg’s own vintage visions of idyllic suburbia, hence the film beginning with a funeral that sets up the deep sadness within Joe, now motherless, and his believable friendship with pretty Alice (Elle Fanning), whom he’s later forbidden to see due to a long-standing feud between the kids’ fathers, town deputy Jackson (Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler), and Louis (Ron Eldard), respectively.
Setting the film in 1979 distances the film from a retread of Spielbergian tropes because there’s a certain working class grittiness to the period and locale: a mining town whose smokestacks are visible from every angle, and a time period that predates the mass spread of home video. The lack of classic suburban technology means the kids have to make their film using Super 8 stock and clunky sound gear, and literally wait for the film’s “rush” 3-day processing before they can examine details which will aide them in understanding the gravity of an alien visitor who literally crashed into town on a military freight train.
When the creature is finally seen and its motivations are clear, a lot of the melancholy and heartache Abrams dramatized so carefully and slowly really resonate, particularly the forbidden friendship between Joe and Alice. What’s interesting is how film-crazy Martin, while articulate and assertive, isn’t the hero; it’s quiet Joe, and it’s his family trauma is what draws Alice close.
Abrams also structures relevant details of the creature, its originals and dilemma, and the fairly obscene military presence in small doses of exposure, much in the way viewers were teased with abstract clues and discoveries in TV’s Lost. We pretty much know as much as the characters, and for at least an hour, our knowledge base is restricted to a train crash caused by a head-on collision, a strange object Joe keeps from the train’s disturbed cargo, and thefts in town of metal gear, not to mention the disappearance of the sheriff, dogs, and fluctuating power.
BLATANT PLOT SPOLIER
When the story is neatly wrapped up, it’s clear Abrams’ has taken Spielberg’s E.T. plot - a young boy who befriends an alien left behind by his ship, and helps it return home in spite of a large military dragnet - to a young teen discovering an alien trying to return home on its own after escaping from a brutal military capture, where it was tortured, and learned to hate humans to the point of unnatural consumption.
END OF SPOILER
There are little Spielbergian moments – light sources as things characters regard with awe and fear, Joe’s ‘letting go’ of his mother’s locket to signal his moving on after losing his mother – but alongside Joe Cornish’s own eighties suburban homage, Attack the Block [M] (2011), Super 8 is a neat, clever, and engrossing work that balances childhood heartache with tense, mysterious otherworldly weirdness. (It’s also worth sticking through the End Credits, as the Romeroesque zombie film the kids were making plays alongside the credits.)
Paramount’s Blu-ray features a nice transfer of the film (with its deliberately tactile film grain present in every shot to evoke a period production), and the sound design is particularly goosed with low bass frequencies. Extras include a commentary track, a wealth of deleted scenes, and the usual making-of featurettes.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan