At a breakfast gathering awhile ago, some friends and I were discussing the fact that there are certain types of films that aren't made anymore. They're difficult to define and not genre specific, but when you see one of them your heart kind of fills up and you gasp a little inside at the blush of sweet nostalgia that overtakes you. The film we were talking about was the John Candy/Dan Ackroyd vehicle "The Great Outdoors"; other prime examples would be "Uncle Buck," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T.," and, most definitively, "The Goonies." These are films that were so closely intertwined with their time they couldn't really be made today, and their narratives spoke to an idea of patience amongst audiences who were willing to entertain something slightly more thoughtful, exuberant, and wide-eyed. J.J. Abrams' wonderfully entertaining "Super 8" looks to tap into that hazy innocence and for the most part succeeds, resulting in a breakneck film that subtly references much of the above while still throwing in enough thrills and destruction to appeal to a modern aesthetic. Abrams trades on his audience's knowledge of these films; while you don't have to be a late-twenties/early-thirties geek to enjoy "Super 8" it sure as hell makes the ride more fun and allows the emotional aspects of the film to resonate a tiny bit more.
Set in small town Ohio circa 1979, "Super 8" follows a tight-knit band of horror film obsessed middle schoolers through the making of their latest celluloid opus, a no-budget zombie film that director Charles (Riley Griffiths) hopes to enter in competition. While obviously an amateur effort, it boasts impressive effects and makeup work courtesy Cary (Ryan Lee) and narrative focus Joe (Joel Courtney.) Joe's make-up and model building are especially advanced, showcasing a sensitivity born from his mother's death months before. The production hits a snag when Charles realizes he needs to introduce a female lead; after roping in the dreamy, bleary-eyed Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to play the role the kids sneak out to film a crucial scene at the train yard. From here the film absolutely takes off, beginning with a train derailing that screams with wanton, joyous destruction and an adrenalized approach to the idea of "thrilling." The kids manage to catch it all on tape, including one of their teachers driving his truck straight into the train, causing all the damage. One of the train cars spills out a mountain of weird cosmic white cubes; Joe pockets one and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of how the cube and the crash fit together. To say too much more is to spoil the fun; best to just let the film grab you by the hand and lead speeding down its dark, freaky hyperfun tunnels.
Fitting that Steven Spielberg had his hand in three of the films i mentioned earlier. He's executive producer here and its from his pool of influence that Abrams draws most liberally (and reverentially.) Abrams' intent is to recreate the sort of "kids against the world" movie so intrinsic to the early 80's; everything in "Super 8" can be traced back to the magic of "The Goonies," whether it's the effortless interaction of all the kids and their broadly drawn personalities (scaredy-cat, pyromaniac big-mouth, egomaniacal fat-kid, sensitive and wounded everykid, doe-eyed love interest) or the relative inefficacy of adults' ability to believe, Abrams paints a world in which children hold the power to unlock the mysteries lurking just beneath the surface. "Super 8"'s mysteries are a little more brutal and frightening than those found in "The Goonies" but even that film held the threat of death over its protagonists; Abrams merely swaps one set of oppression and obfuscation (the Fratellis) for another (the U.S. Army), giving his kids ample enemies and situations to circumnavigate. The Spielberg connection has another key role to play in "Super 8" as well defining the sort of film Abrams is emulating; Spielberg has never shied away from his interest in extraterrestrial life, nor has he ever seemed to tire of the mystery and contemplation associated with the more paranormal aspects of its suggested existence. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T." both dealt with misinterpretation and the necessity of a childlike wonder to appreciate the events that unfolded; so too does "Super 8" rely on an appreciation of the vast weirdness of the universe and an adult world's tendency to punish rather than try and understand. This narrow adult view results in "Super 8" being a much darker film than you'd expect. There's a lot of menace, terror and death hidden in the Ohio shadows.
Adults prove completely unreliable in the film, some well-intentioned (Charles' parents) and some totally lost (Joe's father) but all somehow distant and unable to peacefully traverse their kids' world. Abrams captures this gap masterfully, illustrating the pains and frustrations of trying to communicate with people who are supposed to be able to help us and guide us but end up caught in their own petty squabbles and notions of what's important, ultimately failing those they're meant to protect. Alice's father attempts to prevent her from seeing Joe because of the guilt he feels over his role in Joe's mother's death (which was virtually nil); his feeling of complacency in what was essentially an act of universal indifference creates a despondency that only alienates his daughter and poisons his own life. Joe's father feels similarly towards Alice, unable to let the pain of loss go and be a father to a son who desperately needs him to be one. He channels all of his grief into his police work, attempting to be a guardian to the entire town rather than the one person who most needs him. These intergenerational rifts necessitate the strong relationships between the kids, forcing them to create their own webs of support and essentially their own contained world. Abrams establishes and maintains this sense of removal better than most any film in recent memory, tempering nostalgia with pain and a bittersweet sense of loss not felt since "Stand By Me" (another film "Super 8" owes a strong thematic debt to.)
As the various kids the cast is uniformly excellent. Some characters are more detailed than others but virtually every actor inhabits their role with fervency and determination, speaking to how fun this film must have been to be in. Riley Griffith is particularly outstanding as Charles, lording over the group like a mini Orson Welles infatuated with his own vision and imagined magnetism. Joel Courtney plays Joe well, illuminating his artistic sensitivity and empathy. Ryan Lee infuses Cary with an impish sense of cataclysm, delighting in all things pyrotechnic, while Gabriel Basso makes Martin's fearfulness into an endearing trait rather than the stumbling plot block it could have become. Elle Fanning is also excellent as Alice, bringing the washed-out playful narcolepsy she displayed in Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" to a new level, creating a teenage dream girl whose neither "manic" or "pixie" but mysteriously alluring, leaving little wonder that she creates some discord within the group. It no doubt helped that Abrams allowed the cast to actually make the zombie film the kids are working on (it screens during the credits and is very fun) and learn about each other through creative interaction; their comfort and closeness with one another shines through and gives "Super 8" an authenticity that most films struggle to create.
Everything here works. Abrams has fashioned a marvelous tribute to the sorts of films he (and by extension, a lot of us) loved as a kid. The creation of a world populated with wonder and mystery is difficult to resist, whether you're twelve or, like me, thirty-two. Quality storytelling never gets old, and films like "The Goonies" never really feel dated. J.J. Abrams has taken the best of Spielberg's cosmic interests and fused them to a coming-of-age story that's both affecting and exciting. This is blockbuster filmmaking of an entirely different sort, one that doesn't dismiss its audience as explosion-hungry idiots or pander to base emotional response. "Super 8" is an absolute blast-the first 20 minutes are totally edge of your seat rollercoaster style fun-and it gives new hope to the idea that summer films are brainless garbage only looking to make back their investment. By embracing his own geekery again, Abrams has given us another intelligent film that still manages to be character driven and fun as hell.