Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams)

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There’s no mistaking where writer-director J.J. Abrams is coming from with this project; you know as soon as he opens it by popping out the old Amblin Entertainment logo, the one you’ll remember from such hallmarks of your youth as Back to the Future, The Goonies and Gremlins. Its nostalgic throwback to a crucial scene in E.T. typically appears at the end of Steven Spielberg’s productions; Abrams puts it as early on as he possible can to set the stage for what you’re about to see: the sort of film you wish there was still more of, the sort of film you hope the box office receipts of this one will encourage, the sort of entertainment that was once the parlance of Spielberg himself, Joe Dante and Robert Zemeckis. Children, always immaculately directed and talented, entering some sort of an exuberant fantasy world but moreover defining their own private world, that which is so crucially important to a child — particularly an alienated or introverted child — of a certain age group. These movies could be life savers at one point. It’s a good thing we have a new one. You can only hope that a generation unaware of what Super 8 film even is will respond to it, take it to heart, but maybe it’s really for those of us whose worlds became, for a time, those ’80s touchstones so lovingly and rendered anew without a trace of kitsch here.

It’s putting it mildly to state that Super 8 brings back memories — it’s as strong an act of collective memory as mainstream films have offered in some time. Of course, the end of this same year brought two major Hollywood movies (Hugo and The Artist) that were open celebrations of the film industry’s past, but hardly a past that much of anyone remembers firsthand any longer. Super 8 captures something just distant enough to be weirdly beautiful, making many undoubtedly realize how critically underappreciated those Spielberg and Dante projects were at the time, but present enough that an ’80s or ’90s child will comprehend it immediately, as if regaining an old friend. Movies were making nostalgic bids then, too, of course — so maybe this is our Stand by Me, except somehow more believable despite its toyings with the fantastic. The point is, if you’re a grownup the movie will make you feel like a kid again, at least for its graceful first ninety minutes.

Part of the success is owed to characterization that operates a cut above Abrams’ influences here; of the many films that seem to have played a role in the fabrication of this one, only Dante’s Matinee and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind can make a claim to such strong, believable characters and character relationships. The group of friends trying to make a zombie movie for an amateur filmmaking contest interacts in bitchy, thorny ways that will bring forth memories for anyone who’s ever been eleven to thirteen years old. (And as a side note, I myself was in a collective of four kids who were attempting to make an espionage disaster movie over the course of about a month in seventh grade; every moment of this film dealing with the creation of The Case, including the finished product that plays over the credits, rang wonderfully and painfully true.) You get the bossy director, the slightly aloof camera operator who likes to blow things up, the impatient parents and the yearning for impossible “production values.”

It’s the two central figures, though, who linger in the memory most strongly. The uniformly great performances of the entire cast can’t help but be eclipsed by those of Joel Courteny and Elle Fanning in the two leads, as a couple of the most vivid young teenagers in recent cinema. Courtney’s Joe Lamb is a melancholy sort, a quietly good-hearted and complicated budding makeup artist, who’s recently lost his mother and is struggling with a dad unclear on how to deal with and understand his son. Alice (Fanning) has an equally troublesome dad, and an equally mature, kind, and world-worn face — her worries are advanced beyond her years, and the camera lingers on a palpable pain in her eyes that sees relief in the tranquility of Joe. “Locking eyes, holding hands, twin high-maintenance machines.” But they don’t become an outright couple; there’s no ridiculous climactic kiss or dreadfully overwrought conflict, just two people connecting at a time when a connection has the gravity, the weight of everything that can matter in a fickle fucking world.

Though Abrams considerably overdoes it with his lens flare obsession, with the help of Larry Fong (Zack Snyder’s go-to DP, oddly enough) he turns in an outrageously beautifully shot film that seems to leap off the frame with yearning and nostalgia of the best sort. They are wise to orient the camera toward the faces of these kids, whose every moment on camera brings so much trustworthy and telling material. Of equal importance is the score by Michael Giacchino, now almost officially the best composer in Hollywood at the moment, who studied and bettered the beloved work of Alan Silvestri and John Williams in the ’80s, coming up like Abrams himself with something distinctive that still glares lovingly backward.

Unfortunately, this being a high-profile production, Abrams is forced to find someplace in all this to shoehorn a plot, and it’s not altogether a success. Everything about the premise of kids trying to make a zombie movie is wonderful and gripping and gels nicely with the two central character arcs, but when the nighttime shooting of a scene by a train station results in the Blowup-like witness of a catastrophe — a massive train derailment — the intrigue begins. It’s absurdly cinematic and exciting for a time, but Abrams gradually loses his grip until it doesn’t seem like he knows or cares what’s happening with his high-octane alien subplot (and it really is, in reality, a subplot). By the end he’s introduced so many conflicts and story threads it’s difficult to keep up with all the tropes and highlights and underscored developments; it doesn’t hurt until the final twenty minutes, everything beforehand rich with emotion and humor however much the sci-fi story bogs it all down, but the muddling and over-the-top sap hurts Super 8‘s impact to a rather heartbreaking extent. There’s a decent chance it’s a bit of a put-on, a shot at movie-brat benchmarks like E.T. and failures like Explorers that subvert their wondrously clear and accurate visions of childhood with silly and tremendously overwrought (in one direction or another) monster movie stuff. But why abandon these beautiful characters, this beautiful world that actually elevated the material that inspired it, with such deadpan satire? It seems counterproductive, and more My Science Project or WarGames than Back to the Future.

It’s difficult to hold much of a grudge, though, when the overall impact of Super 8 is so intensely sweet and comforting — a feature meant as the highest of compliments, a return to a time that those of a generation prior probably never thought we’d long for. In atmospherics and unkempt emotion within an unlikely context, Abrams has a slam-dunk here. Plus he ends it with the absolutely classic finished version of The Case, so everything is forgiven. Now can we just have fifteen more movies just like this please? Only with better stories? I’ll be patient.

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