Super 8 – JJ Abrams (2011)

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Spoilers.

“Nostalgia, I hate it!” raves a disgusted Nat (Walter Matthau) in Herb Gardner’s superb 1996 film I’m Not Rappaport. “The dread disease of old people, kills more of us than heart failure!” It is, despite constantly indulging in it throughout the film, the worst thing he can possibly thing of, aside from being shipped off on the Siberian Express to a nursing home. So what is it about this extended generation — the one born around Woodstock, but before Woodstock II — that embraces nostalgia so readily and easily?

I’m guilty of it myself (for I liked this film, and the last nostalgia trip I saw, Paul), but I find that guilt a curious thing. For one, I don’t feel especially guilty about it. I enjoy these little trips down the entertainment memory lane, where everything bad could be set aside and cleared right out of your headspace for Star Wars, or a few issues of Daredevil. Was this generation coddled too much, made too afraid of the real world and its real problems? I’m sure that’s partly it, but I think it’s also partly that some of the real world problems and pressures are a lot tougher now, and things move a lot faster now that it did in the past.

In JJ Abrams’ sci-fi thriller homage to Lord High God Steven Spielberg, Super 8, budding filmmakers Charles (Riley Griffiths) and Joe (Joel Courtney) actually have to wait three days to get the film from their super 8 zombie movie processed to see just how much of the train wreck their cracked lens actually captured.

Three days! And that’s the rush job. Can you imagine that now, in this plug-and-play right now digital world? But wait they did, and rewarded for that wait they were. They caught quite a lot, it turns out.

It is just cinematic happenstance that brings Charles and Joe, and few of their friends to the train station on the outskirts of their little Ohio town one night. They are there to shoot the new dramatic scenes Charles has written to flesh his short film out, where the story’s detective, Martin (Gabriel Basso), is begged to leave the zombie infested town by his wife, Alice (Elle Fanning). The eternal search for production value has led them there, where they end up filming — really, fleeing for their lives from — a train wreck caused, seemingly on purpose, by one of their teachers at the middle school. By the time they finally see their film they and find out what terror has escaped from an overturned car in the accident, it has cast a shadow over the town, and the military do whatever they need to do to try and stop it.

The military has always played a somewhat enigmatic role in Spielberg films. He never succumbed to the paranoia of the 1970s like his peers did. The few times he has, like in War of the Worlds it felt flat and distinctly un-Spielbergian. The military in his films always had something of a redeeming factor, too, whether it be an internal redemption, such as Keys (Peter Coyote) in E.T., or an external one, like Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and Laughlin (Bob Balaban) in Close Encounters. In Super 8, the military is just plain evil, ready to kill, determined to get their way at any cost, even if that cost is the entire town of Lilian, Ohio. It’s a strange disconnect in the ability to read an audience that exists between Abrams and his mentor, where he was trying to cross Close Encounters with The Goonies and E.T., he ended up just adding children to Cloverfield.

Abrams has gotten recent praise, though, for his promotional strategy of not showing the “monster”, after initially taking quite a lot of heat for it. The problem with his strategy is not that he didn’t show the monster, but by saying he wasn’t going to show it, he gave the false impression that this was really a monster movie. It is, sure, but it also isn’t. It’s more that it happens to have a monster in it, and if you take it solely as a monster movie it fails miserably. It offers few scares, nor is it original in concept, design or action.

The meat of the film is about the somewhat complex interpersonal relationships that develop between friends over time, and how easily they are uprooted in unexpected ways when new elements are injected.

The new elements in Super 8 are both the addition of a hierarchy into the group of friends making of their short film, as well as the introduction of member into their group: Alice. Alice is pretty, smart, a surprisingly great actress and just enough of a tomboy. In short, she is the girl everyone falls for, regardless of standing in the new friendship hierarchy. Falling for a girl at that age puts you in such a tumultuous state that its hard to recognize that the kid next to you that you’ve known since kindergarten is in the same state over her as you. Worse still, if you get even the tiniest hint that she is in the same state thinking about you, you cannot possibly give any though to the fact that she is not at all in that state for your friend.

This is the real drama of the film, the Elle Fanning-shaped wedge that is finding its way between Joe and Charles. And as if everything weren’t going badly enough for Charles in Super 8, the wedge is his own fault, invited into the movie by him, the director — the boss, at the top of the new hierarchy. Even though he has no problem talking to and bossing his friends around on set, there is trouble communicating this to Joe, of course. There is an expectation on Charles’ part that Joe should just know, so close is their friendship, but Joe is in no emotional shape to see.

Aside from the misguided, tv-minded decision to have Alice kidnapped and remove Elle Fanning from the film for a half hour, there is plenty of meatiness in this fledgling, awkward triangle to sustain the film where the typical monster mayhem nonsense doesn’t. Awkward teenage romance is its own nostalgia beyond anything you saw at the movies growing up, and it’s a universal thing, especially here: if you got the girl, you can relate to Joe. If you didn’t, you can relate to Charles or use Joe and Alice as your escape.

There is a trick to actual nostalgia in film, though, and its one that Abrams hasn’t quite figured out, or at least not conveyed here. You can, and should be, inspired by the thing. Hell, even rip it off if you want to. Ford stole from Murnau, and Welles from Ford. Truffaut and Scorsese have stolen shots wholly from directors they admire. But they used it to extend their craft. It was a supplement, massaged to fit neatly into their own visual and thematic schemes. Abrams, well, I don’t know what he’s about except that he likes to play in other peoples’ sandboxes. He hasn’t personally expressed anything here as a filmmaker beyond being a fan of other peoples’ films. The lens flares in Close Encounters helped to visually build upon the themes that Spielberg was setting up. Close Encounters is as much a visual experience about light and sound as a common language as it is an emotional experience about Neary and Lacombe and their search for the truth. In Super 8 they just seem to be there. It’s not a visual experience where the quality of the light is important, it’s about the kids overcoming the things kids (and adults) need to overcome, or move beyond. It’s aimless copycatting for the sake of being a copycat. I don’t know that being up front about it changes the fact that it wasn’t necessary to the film. It wasn’t even that necessary to building an homage to Spielberg.