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Super 8 | Review

Oppression From the Inner Child: Abrams Borrows, Steals and Pays Homage to 80’s Icon

Summer blockbusters generally bring with them a requisite level of skepticism. Most of the time, the audience cannot give praise without a caveat or fair warning: ‘It was good up until the point where…’ or ‘He was all right but the CG looked like…’ Or they’re unconscionably bad. Rarely has there been a blockbuster in the last few years that has satiated the different aspects of our commercial appetite, equal parts sugar and violence, romance and explosions. In Super 8, J.J. Abrams has blended all of the appealing aspects of blockbusters (kids, nostalgia, only bad people die) and omitted the unsavory ones. He’s Spielberged his film and is the better for it.

Which is not to say that Spielberg brings with him only a golden ticket and pearls of wisdom. What was passable as sentiment in 1985 is saccharine twenty-five years later. A tragic accident, a silver locket, a distant father (Kyle Chandler), and a shy but open-hearted twelve-year-old boy named Joe (Joel Courtney) is a tried and true combination, tested in focus groups the world over. Joe is sad because his mother died in an accident at the mill. Then the title card ‘Four Months Later’. Literally. A tad on the nose though it introduces the temperament and level of sophistication of the narrative, one that is textbook all the way. For that, we’re allowed to recline and let the good and the bad (but not so bad that it disturbs) wash over us.

Joe’s token fat friend Charlie (Riley Griffiths) is making a super 8 movie and enlists the help of Joe, explosives expert Cary (Ryan Lee), leading man Martin (Gabriel Basso), cameraman Preston (Zach Mills) and the ever-elusive Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to complete the film in time for a local festival’s deadline. One night, Alice steals her father’s car and picks up the boys for an overnight shoot at the train station. Joe is immediately entranced by Alice, the first distraction he’s had since his mother’s death. As she rehearses her lines with Martin, the boys are all smitten; these melodramatic words, laughable when spoken by Martin, take on a new, heightened meaning.

Suddenly, a train approaches and like any good producer, Charlie sees this as a chance to ‘increase production value’. The gang scrambles to get ready to shoot, and as Alice and Martin shout over the roar, Joe glimpses a white pickup driving on the tracks toward the speeding train. What follows is explosion porn, but what satisfying explosion porn it is! The kids dodge falling train cars and shrapnel; the scene a mirror Disney image of the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Amidst the rubble, the gang spots Dr. Woodward, the man who drove head first into a speeding train, and he’s pretty much OK minus a few scratches—here, the suspension of disbelief is spread particularly thin. He warns them of an evil force, and swears them to secrecy about the giant train wreck they all just witnessed. But the camera was left on…

Abrams is careful not to reveal the monster; he taunts the audience for the better half of the movie with a lightning-fast shadowy creature, one that can tear apart a gas station in seconds, and inexplicably send all the dogs in town running in opposite directions. Joe’s father is a deputy, the only straight talking law enforcer in town and he bears the burden of the town’s safety on his shoulders, along with the recent death of his wife. It’s soon established that Alice’s father Louis (Ron Eldard) is the blight of the town, and somehow involved with Joe’s mother’s death, and so despised by the deputy. This lends the film a West Side Story subplot when the Deputy forbids Joe to see Alice. But Joe needs Alice, in a twelve-year-old way, and so he stands up to his father, marking a sea change from victim to hero.

As great as the action sequences can be, and some of them are nerve-wrackingly fun, it’s Joe and Alice who carry the movie, not the thing that throws them together. The openness of Joe’s face, one stolen from the 70s, brings the audience to a world of innocence and truth, of E.T. and Goonies. When Joe finally reasons with the creature, with a logic and conviction only available to someone not yet a teen, you can’t help but nod and smile in acquiescence. His counterpoint is Fanning who exhibits an elegance, a poise that betrays her age and experience. When she looks at her father, she sees his flaws, but also that he is still there, and she loves him for it. In Joe, Alice sees a wholesomeness, something she needs but hasn’t known she did until now. And in Alice, Joe sees a friend, an older sister, a girlfriend (maybe), a surrogate mother.

When, accidentally, Joe flips on his super 8 projector, scenes with his mother play out in front of them. Embarrassed, he reaches to turn it off but Alice tells him not to. She wants to share his grief with him. And though the moment is overstuffed with melodrama, we accept it as part of the story, part of their world. Amidst monsters and government conspiracies, there is still personal loss, and the solace of tenderness and friendship. Abrams and Spielberg have us right where they want us. And we’re happy to be there.

Rating 3.5 stars

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Jesse Klein (MFA in Film and Video Production from The University of Texas at Austin) is a Montreal-born filmmaker and writer. His first feature film, Shadowboxing, (RVCQ '10, Lone Star Film Festival '10) . As well as contributing to IONCINEMA, he is the senior contributor to This Recording and writes for ION Magazine and Hammer to Nail. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (All About My Mother), Coen Bros. (Fargo), Dardenne Bros. (Rosetta), Haneke (The White Ribbon), Hsiao-Hsien (Flowers of Shanghai), Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love), Kiarostami (Close-Up), Lynch (Blue Velvet), Tarantino (Jackie Brown), Van Sant (To Die For), von Trier (Breaking The Waves)

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