J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is a carefully crafted film that depicts the pop culture that inspired a generation to look back at our past with nostalgia.
Nostalgia sells like pancakes. If the 2010s proved anything about audience members is that their childhoods can be exploited to no ends in an attempt to make a quick buck. The Star Wars sequels did this with legacy characters, Spider-Man: No Way Home brought back cast members from previous incarnations, the endless remakes of Hollywood classics, and we can’t forget one of the biggest television sensations of the moment: Netflix’s Stranger Things. Some of these projects utilize nostalgia as a method to enrich their storytelling, others in cheap and uninspired ways. Super 8, though, never over-relies on old references and is more fascinated in its own characters and plot.
In the summer of 1979, a group of friends sought to make the greatest zombie movie with a Super-8 camera in order to enter a film festival competition in Ohio. While filming at a local isolated station, they witness a terrible train accident that almost cost them their lives. The kids take this as a great opportunity after realizing they could use the aftermath of the incident as part of their production. Odd things soon tranpire in their small town, forcing them and local Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler, Godzilla vs. Kong) to uncover the terrifying truth behind the train accident.
As a filmmaker, J.J. Abrams has always been a controversial figure. Whether it is his work in Lost and its disputed ending, the way he handled Star Trek, or most recently his involvement in the Star Wars universe, the man simply can’t help but be a hot topic of discussion. Abrams gets way too much hate when most of his filmography still has a lot of heart. Say what you will about The Force Awakens and Star Trek Into Darkness, but those stories and characters maintain the core themes and elements that made those franchises so special to begin with. Is he guilty of recycling ideas way too often? Yes, but there’s passion behind the creative decisions.
While nostalgia might not work well for some in the previously mentioned movies, Super 8 just gets it. It is a movie that unapologetically loves movies and how they are made. Executive producer Steven Spielberg and Abrams clearly wanted to honor their childhoods when they used to make amateur films with Super-8 cameras on their own. This is perfectly depicted in the young cast of child actors who pour so much life into their characters.
Some notable performers include Joel Courtney’s (The Kissing Booth) Joe Lamb, Riley Griffiths’ Charles Kaznyk, and Elle Fanning’s (The Girl from Plainville) as Alice Dainard. They don’t play groundbreaking roles: you have your stereotypical young protagonist who lost his mother and has a complicated relationship with his dad the Deputy, the geeky guy with the heart of gold, and the girl with the drunken father. What the characters lack in the page they bring out in awkward charisma. Of course, these are just one half of the main cast of children, but they’re the only three given proper character arcs and personality.
Paired with the child actors, director of photography Larry Fong and production designer Martin Whist make J.J. Abrams’ vision a reality. Fong borrows a lot from Spielberg in the way he shoots set-pieces and establishing shots. When filming the alien creature, Fong takes the Jaws approach and uses clever blocking to prevent us from seeing the creature until the third act. He also allows the camera to sit with the characters and give you a sense of scale that fills the audience with wonder and fear. The train accident is a great example of this: once it happens you can feel the danger of the impact in your bones and Ben Burtt’s sound design is out of this world. Then there is the small town in Ohio, which is vibrant and alive thanks to Whist’s ability to capture the time period.
It’d be foolish to ignore the obvious comparison made between Super 8 and Stranger Things. Let’s take the obvious out of the way: group of kids stumbling into a sinister creature, government officials attempting to cover their tracks, local Deputy trying to discover the truth, and people, artifacts and animals going missing. With Stranger Things in mind, it is quite eerie how even the visual cues are similar. Anytime the film’s creature is nearby, lights begin to flicker, just like they do when a Demogorgon appears in Netflix’s hit series. Both works love honoring music from the 70s or 80s, so that’s another factor they share.
Like the Duffer brothers, J.J. Abrams understands why people are nostalgic for films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist, and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. We love the time period these stories take place in because they showcase a simpler era where stakes of this magnitude were easier to be awed by. It’s fun for filmmakers like them to recapture what it was like to grow up when most of our modern pop culture was barely being formed. Yet, Super 8 does not fall victim to pointing its fingers at obvious references. Yes, there are scenes paying homage to the music and films and that influenced it, but never at the expense of story. I could say the same for Stranger Things, though the series does make way more references to its inspirations but it is never really distracting.
Super 8, although clever with an engaging narrative, is far from perfect. Part of the criticisms against Abrams’ work is that he usually writes really interesting mysteries, but often fails to deliver satisfying payoffs, or the audience’s expectations are ridiculously high to the point where no matter the resolution (even if it’s good) it will disappoint fans. The mystery in Super 8 is relatively simple. What is the creature, where did it come from, and why is the U.S. government after it? The film does provide us with answers, but they don’t really feel rewarding. Perhaps this is the case because the storylines feel so disconnected from one another that when they come together they don’t mesh as well as they should.
Another flaw of the film is the relationship between our leads and their fathers, as it isn’t fully fleshed out to really make you care. Their arcs do have an emotional resolution, but again it is due more so to the cast than what’s on the page. I’m not going to act like the script does a terrible job at developing the character’s journey because it is a solid script. The problem is the connectivity issue, as previously mentioned. Both sets of adult and child characters come together at the end, but we’re not given enough time to emote alongside them. The film just ends on a bittersweet note that does leave a mark, but could have been more powerful.
At its core, Super 8 is about letting go, making peace with the past, and looking forward to the future. It is a solid family, coming-of-age thriller with a nice touch of horror that will keep you glued to your screen. Is it J.J. Abrams’ best? Probably not. It is, though, arguably his most underappreciated. There is a lot to like here, a lot that is done right where it could have gone wrong. In a sense, looking back at Abram’s nostalgia piece, it set out to do a story with an aesthetic that a lot of artists would borrow from down the line, whether intentionally or not. For a movie that plays out as a love letter to Spielberg’s filmography and to blockbuster cinema, it does it really well without being preachy.
There are so many genre films you can possibly watch in this month of October. If you want something scary, then you can go for your classics like Halloween or The Exorcist. If a horror comedy is what you wish for, Wes Craven’s Scream and Michael Dougherty’ Trick r Treat might do the trick for you. For one reason or another you, if you are in the mood for a story that is more centered in its characters than in the supernatural being responsible for scare, then I think Super 8 is there for you. A flawed, stylish film with good intentions that will make you want to hold those that mean the world to you close.
Super 8 is now available to watch on digital and on demand.