Super 8 (2011)
Written & Directed by J.J. Abrams
Strange things are happening in the town of Lillian, Ohio in the summer of 1979. Teenage Joe Lamb lost his mother in the winter, and now he and his father are struggling to recover. Joe is occupying his time by helping his best friend Charles make an amateur zombie film. While shooting a scene at a train depot, they witness a horrific crash caused by a local science teacher parking his truck on the tracks. Something was on that train that is now menacing the residents of this small Midwestern town. Joe and his friends quickly become embroiled in a mystery that brings the air force to town and puts their lives in danger.
When I initially saw Super 8 during its theatrical run, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It felt like classic Spielberg. I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the first time a few days before seeing Super 8 to get myself in the mood. Even back then, I preferred Close Encounters to JJ Abrams’ picture. Now, having watched E.T. so close to this second viewing of Super 8 I can say that I think this movie is not much more than a technically proficient hollow nostalgia trip. I didn’t see anywhere near the heart of Spielberg’s seminal work which elicits genuine emotion and empathy from the viewer.
Super 8 is very loud. That is the first thing I noticed while rewatching the movie. It starts out very promisingly, with a quiet prelude that sets up Joe and his grieving father. The jump to summer break felt enjoyable, the friend characters are okay, but as I always think with child actors, they feel to “act-y.” Elle Fanning is the best of the bunch, no surprise. She’s more naturalistic but still stiff when compared to an adult actor. It was great to see Ron Eldard as Fanning’s father, a very underrated and underused character actor. Veteran actor Glynn Turman plays Dr. Woodard, the science teacher with a shady past in the U.S. military. Turman does wonderfully with the material they give him and is honestly more of an exciting seed of a character than Joe ends up being.
However, this is a film that is about JJ Abrams taking his childhood of making movies and turning that into a Spielberg style fantasy adventure. The problem is this is a film being made in a context very different from the early 1980s, where there are technical expectations of pictures. The train crash scene was my first warning in this rewatch that my tastes have changed considerably since 2011. Yes, it was a very realistic train crash, but it felt so loud and violent and harsh that it suddenly shifted the tone of the film. From there on it becomes more like an alien invasion horror movie with the manner in which the scenes involving the alien are framed. So we have two antagonists, the military, and this enigmatic alien. It is not until the conclusion that Super 8 attempts to have some understanding between Joe and the creature, but it never feels earned.
Nostalgia in many ways seems like an attempt to recreate an emotion from the past. I am guilty of trying to indulge in this past time as much as anyone. But I always try to keep an open mind to the fact that what I loved may not be as good as I thought. This has happened quite a bit this summer as I re-read DC Comics crossover events. There’s nothing wrong with loving something from your childhood, but to refuse to open your eyes to the reality of its quality is a very immature road to take. It’s a mindset that plagues “geek” communities now and probably for a long time before. Super 8 is a dopamine rush in film form, it is designed to press the right feel-good buttons but has no real substance behind it. In the same way, people call Saw “torture porn” or roll their eyes as the bombastic nature of Michael Bay’s Transformers; Abrams is trafficking in “nostalgia porn” with Super 8.
The thing that keeps E.T. alive for so many viewers, particularly children, is that its a film that presents the world through their eyes. It’s not the real world, but it is a loving world with hope but also sadness. Super 8 tries to be this but gets sidetracked with spectacle and technique. Even Michael Giacchino’s score is an affectionate pastiche of John Williams’ work. However, I doubt people will remember it the way they associate Williams’ music with those moments of genuine humanity in E.T. E.T. is not a great film because you saw it when you were a kid and loved it, it is an excellent film because it speaks to an eternal part in us all. Super 8 is cotton candy, tastes sweet, but dissolves quickly.