Brian DePalma made Hitchcockian films, Woody Allen made Bergmanesque films, and now J.J. Abrams has made a Spiebergian (Spielbergesque?) film, Super 8. The difference is that Spielberg himself has his fingerprints all over it, as he is one of the producers.
If this film isn’t as good as Spielberg’s best, it’s a blast, and if I were 13 I would have loved it even more, as it speaks to the kind of kid I was then, just like the kids in this movie, who are into monster magazines and making models (the site of a jar of Testor’s model paint gave me a Proustian rush). It’s set in 1979, which was my era, and I very much enjoyed the world that Abrams creates, down to the soundtrack and that a sheriff thinks a Walk-Man is a slippery slope to bad teen behavior.
The film is a hybrid of a childhood adventure and a monster movie–it’s like Stand By Me with aliens. A group of kids, led by the rotund Charles (Riley Griffiths), are working on a super 8 film for a festival. His best friend is Joe (Joel Courtney), who has recently lost his mother in an industrial accident. His father, the deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler), is distant, and wants to send Joe to baseball camp for six weeks, because “it’s what we both need.”
Joe wants to stay and help Charles, and is delighted when he learns that his crush, Alice (Elle Fanning) is going to be in the movie. Like Joe, Alice is without a mother (a classic Disney tactic), and her father (Ron Eldard) is a drunk who’s in and out of trouble with the law. While out filming in the middle of the night at a train station, the kids witness a horrific train crash, when a pickup truck purposely drives into the oncoming train. Their camera records a key bit of information, and they end up trying to outwit the Air Force and their parents to figure out just what’s causing all the weird stuff going on in their town.
I won’t reveal too much more, but I will say there’s a monster involved, and in a classic Spielberg move, you don’t see much of him until the end (perhaps this all stems from the happy accident of Bruce the Shark’s mechanical problems in Jaws). The monster stuff isn’t nearly as interesting as the kids, and having the government be the bogeyman is a tired plot device.
But I loved the interaction between the kids, who are all good, particularly Courtney, Griffiths, and Fanning (who would be any 13-year-old boy’s crush). I don’t want to sound sexist, but this is really a boy’s film, from a male perspective, and Fanning’s character is a bit of a dream come true. It reminds me that Spielberg’s original title for E.T. was A Boy’s Life–this thing is dripping with the stuff that boys love, or at least did once upon a time.
The ending of the film does not exactly hold together. Like the film that Charles is making, some plot points get glided over. There’s a rather easy escape by a character from military custody, and when Joe and the creature meet face to face there’s some maudlin dialogue that seems straight out of a comic book. But this isn’t the kind of movie to spend too much time saying, “Wait a minute.” Instead it’s a movie about impressions, and drinking in the world of the film. I loved the look of the thing, especially the little Ohio town. I was kind of disappointed that they didn’t include a neighborhood movie theater with Alien on the marquee–it came out that summer.
Do stay through the credits, when Charles’ film is shown in its entirety, and has lots of laughs. Then stay and listen to the Knack sing “My Sharona,” and if you’re old enough, have a flashback.
My grade for Super 8: B+