When I was a young boy, Summer was filled with trips to the soft serve stand, colorful spinning mag wheels on Raleigh BMX bikes, imaginary lightsaber duels in the backyard with green plastic wiffle bats, and – since my family had no swimming pool to seek refuge in – hazy afternoons spent in air-conditioned movie theaters. Sitting there in the frosty darkness, I was entranced by flickering images from a golden age of kid cinema crafted by masters with names like Lucas, Spielberg, Dante, Henson, and Zemeckis.
No director defined this period of my youth more so than Steven Spielberg. In the wake of the fantasy-based, otherworldly Star Wars phenomenon, he told Earth-bound stories that, on the surface were about alien creatures and spaceships, but at their cores were heart wrenching stories of complex father/son issues; children dealing with living in broken homes; the bonds of true friendship; the loss of Mom & Pop Americana to corporate sprawl; and the struggle to keep creativity and cultural identity alive within the confines of suburbia.
Spielberg also mastered a beautiful visual trademark for his early films. Movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had an ethereal “fuzziness” to them, a misty dream-like quality that permeated every frame. Now that I’m an adult, I realize all of that was achieved through film stock, camera lenses, and diffused lighting, but my 8-year-old mind perceived only enchanting Summer magic. In Super 8, writer and director J.J. Abrams (LOST, Cloverfield, the Star Trek reboot), sets out to unabashedly pay homage to this long-lost aesthetic. I’m delighted to say that he succeeds brilliantly; effectively capturing a sense of time and place that is important both in a filmic sense, and in personal manner for people like me who were coming of age smack in the middle of that era.
It’s best to walk in to Super 8 knowing as little as possible, but the basic story centers on 12-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) a budding effects makeup artist and model builder who is looking to spend his Summer helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish an 8mm monster movie. Joining in on the project are Joe and Charles’ group of friends, including the female lead Alice (Elle Fanning). During a scene at a small train station, a passing military train de-rails and crashes in one of the loudest, most dazzling displays of destruction and chaos you will see in the theaters this Summer. It was almost as if J.J. was trying to top the infamous crash of Oceanic Flight 815 that he directed for the LOST pilot. Amidst the fiery carnage, something punches its way out of one of the cargo containers and escapes into the warm Summer night. What happens afterwards is simply too good to spoil in any review…
Super 8 is not your standard 21st century Summer Blockbuster popcorn schlock. It’s not a hyperactive, crash-edited spectacle of excess. There are no gratuitous pans over the sweaty chests of bronzed starlets; no low-brow, slapstick pratfalls or talking animals; no national monuments obliterated by meteors; no garish, rubber-suited superheroes. It’s a film driven by friendships, innocence, and memories of a simpler time. Scenes are paced slowly, but never feel tedious. The camera is allowed to linger on faces longer; dialogue is delivered as if every line were of desperate importance, because Abrams understands that is exactly how it feels when you’re 12 years old.
Thankfully, the dialog never sounds forced or ponderous, and that’s mostly due to the terrific performances of Courtney and Fanning, who have absolutely magnetic screen presence. I was utterly transfixed by their sincerity, their innocence, and the purity of their blossoming relationship. These two characters are connected in a way that I won’t reveal here, but it’s heavy stuff which leads to some big emotional payoffs towards the end of the film. The pair handle everything thrown at them beautifully, especially Courtney, who at the beginning of the film is dealing with a very difficult family dynamic involving his policeman Father, played by Friday Night Lights star Kyle Chandler.
That conflict takes a back seat early on to serve as an undercurrent for Joe’s arc during the meat of the film’s running time, allowing the narrative to focus on his relationships with Alice, Charles and the gang, which was fine by me, because I loved these kids and wanted to spend as much time as possible with them. The young actors that make up the film crew are kids that anyone can relate to and remember hanging out with in the halcyon days- the shy one, the group leader, the hellraiser, the nervous geek, the blockhead, etc. yet none of them come across as rote or underdeveloped. In fact, this batch of kids instantly conjure up fond memories of other fun child gangs like The Goonies or – since this does take place during the 70’s – the squabbling Bad News Bears. (Cary, the group’s firecracker-obsessed loose cannon played with devilish glee by Ryan Lee, reminded me a lot of the Tanner character).Their chemistry together is just that good. It’s a joy to watch them making their movie, and simply being kids in a time before technology lashed them to gaming consoles and laptops.
Super 8 is unquestionably an unapologetic love letter by J.J. Abrams to Steven Spielberg and 1970’s suburban nostalgia. Many people aren’t going to truly understand or appreciate what that means, but luckily for them, it’s not necessary to enjoy this magnificent piece of Summertime entertainment. For two hours I was transported back in time…back to my room filled with Star Wars action figures, Mad magazines, an Atari 2600 attached to a dying 13″ color TV, and E.T. looking down on me from a poster on the wall. When a film can do that, you know you’ve just witnessed something very special.