Super 8 at 10: What’s in the (mystery) Box?
Revisiting J. J. Abrams’s Super 8
When J.J. Abrams’s secretive and highly anticipated Super 8 arrived in cinemas, I was a bit shocked to learn that so many of my close friends absolutely hated the film. I absolutely loved the movie when I first saw it back in 2011, and I’ve been itching to revisit the sci-fi adventure ever since. They say when you love someone, you love them even for their faults, and well, ten years later, I still love everything about Super 8, despite some minor flaws. Looking at it as both a fan and critic, I’ve come up with eight reasons to love or hate Super 8.
Small Scale / Large Scale
The CGI-rendered train crash which opens the film is one of the most visually arresting and riveting action scenes in recent years, a spectacular set piece of superb sound design high-tech pyrotechnics with enough explosions to get Michael Bay excited. And although it is perhaps the most exciting scene within the film, it is also the most problematic. Firstly, the scene lacks believability. In one frame we see the truck that derails the train which explodes. Five minutes later, the six kids walk up to the vehicle only to discover the man inside is somehow still alive. Even worse, the children then quickly escape after having a gun drawn on them, simply to retire back to the suburban homes and quickly forget the entire adventure. Would children really react to such an earth-shattering event in such passive ways? Even more, why would the military transport such a dangerous alien being without any military supervision?
While the crash quickly grabs the full attention of the audience, the film never once comes close to matching its intensity, making the already disappointing climax seem even less interesting – thus the major problem with Super 8. Super 8 is at its best when it stays focused on the group of kids, and at its worst when it complicates a simple story with increasingly meaningless action set pieces. Everything that happens on the kids’ route is pitch-perfect, and just about everything that revolves around the heavy action scenes is a little disappointing.
Everything on a smaller scale is great, but once they ratchet up the effects and action, nothing seems to make sense, specifically in one scene where the small suburban town is turned into a war zone without any explanation. Was the monster controlling the tanks and the machine guns? Why were the troops still walking around if their machine guns were firing away on their own people? And if they were firing the guns themselves, who exactly were they firing at, considering the townspeople were all evacuated and the monster was nowhere in sight? More importantly, if the monster had this power in it, why didn’t it act anytime sooner?
The good news is that the special effects are state-of-the-art and never overused, and while I’ve been continuously disappointed with the effects in such films as Thor and X-Men: First Class, I can’t say the same for Super 8. Even more important is that Abrams never provides explanations for any of the problems mentioned above. Often too many filmmakers provide unnecessary dialogue and exposition about the why, what, who, and where that, in the end, makes absolutely no sense. This is a science fiction film, but the science is omitted and audiences are left to form their own conclusions for any unanswered questions. And that is not a bad thing. Midway through the action, the kids go looking for clues in a middle school biology lab while watching someone else’s Super 8 film. They find the answers to everyone’s questions immediately, and while it may seem like clumsy writing, it was refreshing to not have to sit through endless bouts of tedious exposition.
Setting the action in 1979 allows for a dose of well-earned nostalgia with the Super 8 camera in the spotlight.
The Monster / FX
In classic Spielberg films, the fantastical elements serve as the catalyst to explore the family dynamic, the budding romance, the father-son issues, the test of friendships, and so on. Spielberg’s movies, most notably E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, had classically structured narratives whose science fiction elements felt organically related to the rest of the story. In E.T. and Close Encounters, we the audience, along with the main characters, cared for the aliens, whereas Super 8‘s creature seems like a pure McGuffin, only added to advance the plot.
One lesson Abrams learned from Spielberg has its roots in Jaws: Abrams decides to shoot the monster sequences mostly off-screen or in shadows for the first half of the pic. When it comes to the monster, less is more, and until we get to the big reveal, the creature is rarely, if ever, seen. With Jaws, this wasn’t so much a choice as it was a necessity, simply because the shark looked too fake to put on screen for too long. But the difference between Jaws and Super 8 is that in Jaws, the decision to hide Bruce is somewhat organic within the film since the shark is underwater and everyone else is above water. No one can see the shark, so it works within the context of the film. Nobody is watching Jaws thinking maybe it’s an octopus killing everyone. We know it is a shark and more importantly, we know what a shark looks like. With Super 8 and all its refined special effects, it’s a deliberate decision to hide the monster. In this movie, Abrams intentionally avoids showing us the monster, but there was really no reason to do so – and so at one point, it becomes both frustrating and distracting.
It’s a classic Abrams trope, incorporated with disappointing results in his TV show Lost. He calls it “The Mystery Box” – in other words, prolongs the mystery as long as possible. Themes of childlike resistance to authority and intergalactic compassion are evident here, as they were in Spielberg’s films, but Super 8 never quite reaches it’s full potential simply because we, nor the characters in the film, are ever emotionally invested in the monster itself. Abrams never seems quite sure what to make of his creature. Should we fear it or sympathize with it?
1979 and the Super 8 Camera
Writer/director J.J. Abrams teams with producer Steven Spielberg for this period sci-fi thriller set in the late ’70s – 1979 to be exact. This was a pivotal period in movie history. Only a few years earlier, Spielberg had directed the first-ever summer blockbuster Jaws and followed it up with Close Encounters and E.T. Super 8 is, after all, an homage by its writer/director to its producer, the kind of high-profile movie we so rarely see these days: an old-fashioned, good-feeling summer movie spectacle that doesn’t rely on sequels, spin-offs, reboots, adaptations, 3-D, comic tie-ins or big-name movie stars. It’s also a love letter to all those with a passion for filmmaking that emerges at a young age and offers today’s generation of movie-goers a hint of what it was like for their parents to go to a theatre during the ’70s and ’80s. Setting the action in 1979 allows for a dose of well-earned nostalgia with the Super 8 camera in the spotlight, an artifact of the past, and without it, the world may have never known Spielberg nor Abrams, since both men got their start with the now-forgotten format.
Abrams has distinguished himself as an exceptional craftsman but still lacks a distinctive director’s signature.
Art Imitating Art
The reoccurring argument I hear is that Super 8 suffers from the post-modern condition of art imitating art. Filmmakers (at least in Hollywood) are not making personal films anymore – instead, they are making films replicating those of the filmmakers they grew up watching. Perhaps the filmmaker who does it best is Tarantino – his movies are steeped in pop culture and the world of the directors that influenced him. But with Tarantino, you feel his passion and love in every frame. The question is, does Super 8 supply more than pastiche?
The plot is a mishmash of various sci-fi and Spielberg tropes, but Abrams, who wrote the script, has enough storytelling savvy to keep you invested from start to finish. Richard Roeper called it a cinematic version of a cover band. He overloads this sci-fi adventure with so many homages to his co-producers work that it plays like the older director’s greatest hits. There is truth in that statement, but there is more on-screen than Spielberg himself. We see the influences from Poltergeist, Goonies, Iron Giant, The Thing, Phantasm, and George A. Romero’s Night of The Living Dead, with passing winks at The Explorers, WarGames, Duel, and even Gremlins. Toss in a healthy measure of War of the Worlds, Jurassic Park, and a nod both to Abrams’ TV mystery Lost and the classic Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance,” and you have enough references weighed both for maximum nostalgia and hipster cred.
But back to the question two paragraphs above. There are parts that feel very authentic coming straight from the heart of Abrams, and we see this most in the scenes featuring the kids making the film within the film. There’s a thin line, however, between paying respect to what came before and copying it, and Super 8 occasionally crosses over that line. Thus, the problem with Abrams. He has distinguished himself as an exceptional craftsman, but still lacks a distinctive director’s signature, so even his most personal work is covered in the fingerprints of another filmmaker’s style. But Super 8 is saved because he at least keeps a sense of humanity in the film. Spielberg’s films all balance epic narratives with an element of humanity. Abrams effectively conveys a mix of innocence, fear, wonder, and childhood adventure that Spielberg managed to create again and again both in the films he himself helmed or in classics he produced, such as Stand By Me and The Goonies.
I guess you just have to ask yourself – does it have heart, or is it simply pastiche?
Does the movie have a moral? I would say maybe, and mostly about the length to which we’re driven by our fear of the unknown and lessons about letting go. Abrams said the creature is intended to work as a metaphor for something deeper, a way to externalize and make physical the thing that this kid was going through internally. Unfortunately, I am not sure that metaphor is really communicated very well, but I do believe that Joe’s journey was captivating enough to overlook this flaw.
Super 8 is Spielbergian not just in story, but also in technique, featuring great production values, including the beautiful widescreen picture by cinematographer Larry Fong (Watchmen and Sucker Punch) and a great score by composer Michael Giacchino, who does a very good impression of John Williams. Several of the director’s preferred camera angles and movements are on display, and like his mentor, he keeps the pacing quick and agile without being frenzied. Super 8 never slows down, for better or worse, and Abrams shows off incredible attention to period detail, with the automobiles, rotary dial telephones, U.S. steel factories, walkie-talkies, and late ’70s pop tunes. Oh, and those intentional, infernal blue light flares he uses à la Close Encounters of the Third Kind are also present and accounted for. Be it an empty style exercise or a director’s trademark, it actually makes sense in the context of a Spielberg homage.
Unlike many science fiction features, this one puts the characters before the monsters and the action. After all, action only has meaning when an audience cares about the people they are watching, and so it helps that the cast is so incredible. The unforced performances of Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are remarkable, and because their characters are so fleshed out and deeply felt, the movie’s mystery takes a backseat. The mildly profane overlapping banter among the smart, likeable, nerdy 12 year-olds seems so natural that you wonder how much was improvised, if any. Joe and Charles’ scenes together are better-written and acted than most adult friendships in Hollywood films. Unlike the kids in the Goonies, these kids are more dynamic – different and not all constantly shrieking. Their dynamic and history with each other are established in the swiftest of strokes, perhaps because the children are doing precisely what Spielberg and Abrams did when they were of that age – shooting a student film via an 8mm camera. Joel Courtney shows more poise than the average Joe in his professional debut, while for the second time that year, Fanning proves to be one of the brightest young stars in Hollywood, emerging from her older sister’s shadow.
The End and The Beginning
The prologue seems to be an issue for many people, but I think it is a really effective scene, communicating up a lot of information while quickly establishing the emotional stakes at large. The climax on the other hand, for all its special effects, feels like a second-hand garage sale purchase from Spielberg’s most manipulative moments. Regardless if it gets dusty-eyed in the cinema for you or not, we are saved with an additional ending, The Case, the no-budget zombie film within the film that plays out in its entirety over the closing credits, is a short so entertaining that you’ll wish the multi-million-dollar spectacle matched its charm.
All in all, Super 8 is not a perfect film but it is an enjoyable, riveting, well-acted sci-fi adventure and coming-of-age drama, pitting a group of middle-school kids against the world. Chances are, I’ll revisit this film every few years, and chances are, I’ll love it every time, regardless of what it does wrong.
January 7, 2017 at 9:33 pm
If we ever do another movie podcast, you and I discussing this film will make for a lively debate. I count Super 8 as among the worst movies I’ve ever seen in a theater, from the opening shot of the steel mill accident sign all the way up to the credits (the kids’ movie is entertaining). You’re right about Abrams in that he’s a very skilled (or slick) tradesman, but the more I see from him the more I think the guy has no idea how to tell a story.
I will say this though – Super 8 gave me and the fellow movie-loving buddy I saw it with some great bar conversation for a long time. We picked that thing apart until the remains were unidentifiable. So in that sense I got my money’s worth.
January 7, 2017 at 10:17 pm
I’ll give you that Elle Fanning showed her talent here, however. She was the only kid whose existence seemed plausible to me, and a lot of that had to do with her acting. The kid whose only purpose is to light fires though? Ugh.