Super 8 Captures the Summer Movie Experience
- Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2011 10 Jun
DVD Release Date: November 22, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: June 10, 2011
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and some drug use)
Genre: Sci-Fi Drama
Run Time: 112 min.
Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Riley Griffiths, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Gyle Turman, Gabriel Basso, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills
A few days ago I saw Super 8, and for a couple of hours I was 10 again.
For anyone whose formative years were from the late-‘70s through the ‘80s, and were in large part shaped by your escapes to the movie theater, Super 8 is more than a fun throwback or reverent homage to the films of that time (though it is, as much as any film has ever been, if any truly has).
Broader still, Super 8 isn’t just the best summer movie of 2011. It’s the best summer movie since the era that spawned summer movies. How fitting (and logical) that it’s produced by Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker who started and dominated that era, and directed by the new wunderkind J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, TV’s Lost) who, with this, is now Spielberg’s successor.
Their collaboration hasn’t merely resulted in a quintessential summer movie experience. Super 8 is the kind of movie that made an entire generation fall in love with movies. The kind that didn’t just “wow” us but moved us, and meant something to us. That makes Super 8 more than an event; it makes it special.
I could go on and on about the Spielberg tropes that Abrams mirrors here in both aesthetic and narrative (from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. especially, though not exclusively) and spend an entire review annotating it all, but many others have and you can find them online easily enough. For me, there’s something more effectual and important at its core.
While remarkable and even thrilling, it’s not the homage to Spielberg’s style that solely distinguishes Super 8. The great lesson Abrams takes from his mentor and implements here (as he has throughout his career) is an emotional earnestness that is as bold and open as it is unrepentant. It’s not corny when it’s this heartfelt.
Plot details have been heavily guarded in the build-up to its release, and I won’t spoil them here. But the best-kept secret isn’t what The Creature is; it’s that this is a personal story with raw emotions, expressed with tension and tenderness by a wonderful and largely unknown cast.
The story is set in late 1970s rural mid-America, one that evolves into a “sci-fi in suburbia” Spielbergian fable. But that, and the adventures that come with it, are merely a context in which to tell a more fundamental human story, a coming-of-age tale that deals with everything from first love to tragic loss, that wrestles with pain, separation, death and grace, that runs the gamut from relational distance to emotional awakening—and how the latter heals and redeems the former.
At the core of these dynamics are Joe and Alice, two middle-school tweens who are both living with (though not dealing with) separate troubles at home, each that are single-parent households. Not friends, they are brought together by a mutual classmate and aspiring filmmaker who’s in the midst of scraping together a short film on his super 8 camera (hence the title) with the hopes of entering a local film festival.
While filming at a railroad stop, the added “production value” of a passing-by train unexpectedly turns explosive when it derails and crashes—and not by accident. The result is not only the escape of “something” from a top secret Air Force boxcar but also the ripple effects from the military’s descent onto this quiet town to Joe and Alice being forced to confront what they had grown accustomed to suppressing, both with their respective fathers and, eventually, each other.
As Joe, newcomer Joel Courtney is impressive. He feels the flood of conflicting emotions in a way that is natural and true: guarded on the surface but surging underneath. As Alice, Elle Fanning (Somewhere) not only matches the sophisticated talents of her sibling starlet Dakota but also channels a well of vulnerability that her older sister lacks. They each have and share moments that will make your heart break and eyes well up. In addition, subplots involving their fathers add even more poignancy, supported by Kyle Chandler (TV’s Friday Night Lights) and Ron Eldard (TV’s ER) in roles that easily could’ve been one-note but, instead, are elevated by authentic, dimensional turns.
Though my focus here has been on the characters, the film itself patiently builds and crescendos its emotional through-line. To be more accurate, it’s the thrills, laughs and scares that play at the forefront of this highly engrossing piece of popcorn cinema. Abrams masterfully builds suspense, unleashes terror, and then breaks tension with comic relief (and, in doing so, brings our guard down only to scare us again). He does this in large part by keeping “the creature” a mystery through most of the film (is it a monster? An alien?!), wisely following the old Jaws-adage to keep “It” hidden, concealed, and out of frame up until the final act.
It’s bald-faced manipulation on the part of Abrams that creates an emotional and experiential roller-coaster, but manipulation is a wonderful thing when done to such entertaining effect. Indeed, its effectiveness should be stressed as a caution to parents. While it makes me feel like a kid again, this is definitely not for children. Stylistic horror as well as bloody aftereffects of attacks are simply too intense for younger viewers, as is the natural flow of profanities from this early-teens cast (another “homage” that isn’t quite so parent-friendly). It’s a fairly “hard” PG-13.
The finale's sci-fi details are a bit rushed and muddled, but the emotional climax couldn't be more clear—or potent. It will put a lump in your throat, and have earned it. Sure, the themes are basic; there’s no deep insight here. What makes it potent isn’t originality; it’s sincerity. This doesn’t intend to provoke new ideas or ways of thinking. Rather, it affirms (powerfully so) the values we hold true—love, valor, sacrifice, compassion—and the courage to summon those virtues when put to the test.
The purity of this endeavor is exemplified best in the fact that there’s no setup for a sequel, no crass establishment of a tentpole franchise. It is as it should be: a singular, personal story with its own arc and poetic closure.
Go opening weekend. Fight the crowds. Stand in line if you have to. This is meant to be a communal experience. Super 8 is why we go to the movies. It’s more than a movie. It’s an affectionate “thank you” to a filmmaker who inspired a generation, from a filmmaker who will inspire the next.
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Beer is consumed, some drunkenness. Pot is smoked by one character.
- Language/Profanity: Consistent (though not constant) use of many profanities throughout, including one F-word, but mostly a fairly liberal use of most swear words (s-word, a-word, h-word, d-word, b-word, etc., and creative uses of those words), as well as several instances of the Lord’s name taken in vain. Crude vulgarities are also used on occasion, including the d-word and p-word (although this adjective is used twice as a descriptor for being a wimp, not a sexual reference).
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Some kissing, but nothing intense or offensive. One side character is always trying to pick-up the sister of one of the main characters, but not in a crude way.
- Violence: Intense explosion and derailment of train; resulting carnage, including a bloody head with multiple wounds. Several “attack” sequences by the creature that are very scary, even when it’s not seen. Bloody after-effects of attacks, as well as a car crash. A child is abducted by the creature, and is frightening. Bodies are suspended upside down in an underground cave. While not graphic, there is a murder by lethal injection. Vomiting. In the “zombie” short film being made by the teens, one zombie is killed by pressing his head into nails on a wall; blood runs from his mouth (though this is for comic effect, but still a little gross). It’s a fun movie, but it’s also a scary one.
Jeff Huston is a writer/director/editor for Steelehouse Productions, a film & video production company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also publishes a movie blog that can be found at icantunseethatmovie.com, and is a member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. In 2015, his short film Pink Shorts was a finalist in HBO's Project Greenlight competition, and was one of six winners in that show's online "Greenie Awards."