To watch Super 8 is to witness the birth of our current geek culture. If you’re wondering how we got to the point where popular entertainment is dominated by zombies, aliens, superheroes and robots – formerly the stuff of comics and midnight movies – the answer lies here.
Set in 1979, Super 8 follows a group of middle schoolers who sneak out late at night to make a no-budget horror flick. When a train crashes nearby and spills its cargo, the kids encounter … well, let’s just say it wasn’t carrying coal.
This group of kids is a delightful, ragtag bunch. Among them is Charles (Riley Griffiths), the wannabe director who is obsessed with “production value” for his amateur film; Cary (Ryan Lee) the explosives expert who always has fireworks in his backpack; and Joe (Joel Courtney), whose love for painting model trains has made him the de facto make-up artist. The sole girl is Alice (Elle Fanning), who has been convinced to come along because someone has to play the wife.
In the real world, these kids – or at least kids like them – grew up to become some of the biggest players in Hollywood. Near the top of this list is Super 8 writer-director J.J. Abrams, who has also been behind the likes of Cloverfield and television’s “Lost.” Having come of age when Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, George Lucas’ Star Wars and the zombie flicks of George Romero were in theaters, Abrams and his filmmaking generation see the world through a science-horror-fantasy-fiction lens – occasionally for better, often for worse.
Super 8 is for better. Its feel for the movies of the 1970s and early 1980s – call it the Star Jaws age – rings truer than most other recent echoes (the Transformers series, on which Spielberg is a producer, comes to mind). Spielberg is also a producer for Super 8, but what Abrams manages while in the director’s chair – and what Michael Bay can’t muster no matter what his budget on the Transformers films – is the sense of genuine wonder that pervades Spielberg’s best movies. Super 8 pulses with astonishment – at the excitement of adolescence, at the possibility of the otherworldly, at the power of cinema itself.
In Super 8, as in a Spielberg masterpiece such as E.T., this sense of wonder works on two planes – that of the fantastic and the mundane. In its opening scenes with Joe and his buddies, Super 8 lovingly captures how a single thing – a friend, a game, a crappy homemade movie – can create a crucial spark in the midst of a dreary childhood. As these kids film that night at the train station and their movie begins to take real shape, wonder breaks into their little lives.
Then, with the train crash, another sort of wonder invades. It’s telling that for all the craziness that ensues – some of it pretty gruesome for a movie that really should have been crafted as a PG – emotions such as fear or consternation never drive the narrative. With revelatory tracking shots, swooping camera movements and a tinkling score (nearly all borrowed from the Spielberg playbook), an aura of amazement rules.
To mention all the Spielbergian touches that Abrams includes would take far too long, so I’ll only note one more. Throughout the film, even in the earlier, quieter moments, a purposeful lens flare sends a slim streak of blue light across the screen (think Close Encounters). Abrams has used this before, notably in his Star Trek reboot, but it’s even more fitting for Super 8. Eerie and electric, it’s the perfect visual metaphor for a movie about something weird and wonderful piercing its way into our ho-hum world.