Yesterday I went on a movie date to see Super 8. For starters , I’ve been coming off a pretty horrific chain of mediocre or outright brown and smelly movies. Maybe Ive been desensitized by all the repetitive nonsense, or am looking forward to this summer’s pounding salvo of geek-gasm movies like Cowboys and Aliens, but the stuff I’ve been catching up on just does not live up. We’ve been getting years’ worth of road trip films, stoner films, and bloody horror that fits into what Hollywood has decided will sell with the least production cost. It was thus an extra delight to find that yes, old-school filmmakers still exist in the world and are hard at work making films that stick in the memory like they used to in my childhood.
Super 8 is the story of a group of kids who are out to shoot their own zombie movie in the wake of a tragedy in their midst, hence the title reference to 8mm film. As they go about their suburban childhood developing cute crushes by night and building train models by day, they stumble onto a horrific train crash that envelops the budding filmmakers in a growing catastrophe. The best way to describe this film: If you dropped the Goonies into ET and shot it like Cloverfield, then laced it liberally with easter eggs, you’d get Super 8.
My girlfriend actually began elbowing me about my insistent whispering when the film began, telling me that this was not that kind of film. She was right. Super 8 does not grab your attention or make it simple from the get-go like many films are doing these days. The pacing and layout of the film does not fall into the nonstop media feedback model that many horror or action flicks do, for example the opening chopper flight of Battle for LA. What it does do is take time to set up every nuance, foreshadow and character empathy, and I appreciated that. Not only do we see our protagonist mourning his recently deceased mother, we also see his friends naturally curious about what a human body would look like crushed under a steel beam. This theme of childhood growth and innocence persists throughout the film, tempering the horrific moments and dramatizing the adults’ conflicts by comparison. By the end of the film, that innocence becomes our heroes’ saving grace, not just by the fortuitious placement of the kid with braces having firecrackers, but by the life lessons learned by everyone involved.
The special effects are nothing we haven’t seen before, but these are deployed beautifully. Like the super 8 film being made by the kids, this film is less about the technical prowess and more about the meaning of each effect. The train crash, while excellently done in CGI, achieves its full impact because it is exploding around a group that the audience has come to find endearing beyond the mere fact that they are children. You care that the blood covering the shrapnel might belong to the chubby director, or the actor who pukes when he’s nervous, or the hardass actress. It must be said, also, that many of the special effects avoided CGI entirely, such as the real tanks running amok later in the film. This harkens back again to the inexpensive but certainly relevant effects in the kids’ film, showing us that eye candy is not necessary for a good film. The easter eggs Abrams leaves us further presses that fact: The Evil Dead references, the fact that the monster is not revealed until the end, the model train ‘explosion,’ all bring us back to the nostalgia of the medium when it was still a vessel for the imagination and not just some mass-marketed product. I especially loved the minimal use of period artifacts, such as the Walkmen, the classic cars lining the street, and the childrens’ bicycles that really cemented our connection with the setting beyond simple nostalgia. I felt like I could have lived on that street, biked across it to my friend’s noisy crowded house, could have visited that film shop and met that stoner clerk. Music falls to the background save where it is needed, such as the use of My Sharona for period effect. That, again, shows the film’s penchant for allowing the viewer to imagine what he will and react naturally.
The plot is glorious, and I will leave it at that, because Abrams and crew have done a wonderful job at layering and weaving the story together and it would be a shame to ruin it for you. Suffice it to say, this is one for the ages, and you’ll want to watch and savor it over and over, finding the easter eggs, sharing in the kids’ bravery and especially watching their Super 8 film in the credits. I do hope our portly director wins his contest, because he deserves it.