Further establishing himself as the next generation's Steven Spielberg, triple threat talent J.J. Abrams (writer/producer/director) has teamed up with the legend himself for the first original project of Abrams' feature directing career. Much like Chris Nolan's Inception last year, Super 8 is an idea that has been in Abrams' mind for many years and is a complete passion project. Spielberg produced Super 8, and you can feel his influences permeate every frame: visual style, character moments, relationships, and most importantly, what some people are referring to as the "nostalgia" factor (more on this later). Abrams successfully cribs Spielberg's old Amblin vibe, adding his own energy to an alien-on-the-loose story that is easily one of the best blockbusters of the year so far.
Writer/Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Kyle Chandler
In 1979, a group of teenagers is making an 8mm film for an upcoming competition. A train crashes while they're filming, and the mysterious creature being transported is set loose in their small Ohio town. As the military quickly swoops in to clean up the wreckage, everyone - including one of the teenagers' fathers, the town sheriff - is searching for answers. Though the movie's scale grows as time passes, Super 8 still feels like a very personal film. It's the story of a young boy coming to terms with the passing of his mother and reconnecting to his father in the process. (It's similar to Hesher in that regard alone.) This is small town Americana filmmaking at its best, not shot on a studio backlot or a lot built for filming in New Mexico (ahem, Thor), but instead in a real West Virginia town to establish a sense that these locations actually exist.
As someone who generally is not a fan of kids in movies, the casting was surprisingly great. Everyone in Super 8 put in some really solid work, especially the main group of kids. That's the thing about movies like this and Joe Cornish's brilliant Attack the Block: it's fun to see alien-related events through the eyes of a younger crowd instead of the deadly serious eyes of adults all the time (see: Battle: Los Angeles). Joel Courtney was substantial as the lead and Elle Fanning provided a rare case in which nepotism wasn't annoying, but Riley Griffiths was my favorite as Charles, the director of "The Case," the short film the characters are working on (stick around during the credits to see the finished product). His catchphrase ("that's mint!") was irritating to some, but I'll admit I found it amusing.
The adults were a bit less impressive, with Kyle Chandler wandering around looking confused and the best friend from The Truman Show unconvincingly playing a hardass military general. All things considered, though, the good outweighs the bad here. All of this is highlighted by the disgustingly talented Michael Giacchino, giving us a score that takes its cues from John Williams as much as J.J. took his from Spielberg. Abrams' script is essentially a "Romeo and Juliet with aliens" take, and gets a bit sentimental at points (especially the ending, reminiscent of Close Encounters but also District 9), but the movie is still totally watchable and highly enjoyable. And my God - that train crash sequence is spectacular beyond belief.
My cohort at GeekTyrant, Free Reyes, referred to Abrams as "Spielberg 2.0", an apt nickname that specifically captures the director's intent with this project. He is truly able to recreate the experience of many of Spielberg's old Amblin movies (Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. immediately spring to mind), grounding spectacular events in a realism that makes it easy to identify with the characters. The nostalgia factor that everyone talks about comes from seeing kids left to their own devices, making movies and goofing around. I used to make movies with my friends (granted, I was much older than these kids were), but Super 8 still evokes that feeling of being in the moment and being passionate about a project you're working on. Everyone has experienced that at some point. I've seen people hate on this movie by saying something like, "just because the kids ride bikes, does that make it nostalgic?" I would say yes, actually. My generation in particular (born in '85) is probably among the last age bracket to physically remember what it feels like to not have the internet at our fingertips at all times. We grew up in a time when we would actually go out and ride our bikes around the neighborhood, playing outside with our friends. (Derrick Comedy's Mystery Team also riffs on this "bike riding as nostalgia" concept.)
But Abrams doesn't just operate within his mentor's shadow in this movie - he steps out of it to explore ideas of his own. There is a lot to be said about the concept of a "movie within a movie" here, with Abrams granting a similar sense of importance to the act of filming as he did as a producer on Matt Reeves' fantastic Cloverfield back in 2008. Not only is filming itself deemed important, but the power of performance is given an almost holy quality in Super 8. There's a scene before the train crash in which Alice (Elle Fanning) is rehearsing her lines for their little movie, and completely mesmerizes the guys with her acting. Later, Joe (Joel Courtney) applies zombie make-up to Alice's face and she asks him for pointers on how to play a zombie; when she goes into zombie mode, Joe is spellbound again. These are small moments, but I read them as a statement from the director praising film's potential to change the lives of audiences.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
I'm also of the mindset that Super 8 is a prequel to Cloverfield. Apparently Abrams has denied this in interviews back when the movie was first announced, but regardless of his misdirection, I think there is enough evidence to support the theory that the alien in Super 8 is somehow related to the alien we see in Cloverfield. I go in detail about this in the GeekTyrant audio review of Super 8, so check in there for more information. As a producer on Cloverfield and someone with a penchant for including his signature in every movie (Slusho, seen here on a blink-and-you-miss-it sign at the gas station), I don't think it's too much of a stretch to imagine Abrams wanting a connection between those films. Also, when you consider the aforementioned similarities of the importance of filming both to Super 8 and Cloverfield, I think the case gets a bit stronger. Regardless of J.J.'s intention, I consider this a spiritual prequel to Reeves' film. But what do you think? Sound off in the comments - I'm legitimately interested in hearing from everyone on this.
Super 8 is my preferred summer blockbuster: a project with talented names attached and an original concept. If it does well, you can bet Hollywood will make sure we continue to see films like these mixed in with our board game and superhero movies in the summers to come. Until next time...