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Super Fun, Super Loud, Super 8

A big-bang demolition derby, J.J. Abrams’s much-anticipated, greatly enjoyable Super 8 seems bound for box-office glory. Opening three weeks before July 4th, this Steven Spielberg–produced, kid-centric 21st-century disaster flick could well hang on at theaters till the 10th anniversary of 9/11—an event that haunts Abrams’s surefire blockbuster nearly as much as it did his earlier production Cloverfield, or his major influence, the master’s War of the Worlds.

Set in a small rustbelt town during the summer of ’79, Super 8 basically refracts—or re-refracts—a familiar ’50s sci-fi trope, even as Abrams riffs on the freshly minted sense of suburban wonderment that Spielberg brought to the material in the late ’70 and early ’80s. Newly motherless Joe Lamb (neophyte Joel Courtney) is making a Super 8 Night of the Living Dead with a bunch of fellow 14-year-olds. In a nice touch, the most obnoxious is the director (Riley Griffiths, another first-timer), while the star, most convincingly, is Elle Fanning, a nice girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Joe’s puppy love is sealed by her playfully bestowed zombie kiss, although Abrams may himself identify with the second most obnoxious goony, an annoying little firebug who lives to blow things up (Ryan Lee).

The kids are out late one night, secretly filming by the town railroad, when a pickup truck apparently stalls on the tracks, precipitating a massive flaming-boxcar-hurling apocalyptic derailment of terror—not the first instance of total Ground Zero devastation this Ohio town will endure. Before long, unseen whatzits are liquidating various characters, stealing car engines, cutting the electrical power, and frightening the town’s dog population into scampering out for neighboring counties.

The U.S. Army, even more sinister here than in Close Encounters or E.T., takes control, leaving legitimate, if overly uptight, authority to Joe’s father (Kyle Chandler), a local deputy sheriff. (The movie has a fair amount of emotional backstory, which mainly comes down to what makes a good dad.) “This feels like a Russian invasion,” someone insists at a chaotic town meeting—and that’s before the army’s red-faced commander (Noah Emmerich) orders a mass evacuation. Soldiers are ubiquitous, but, as in Cloverfield, Abrams rations out the whatzit appearances in fragmentary bits and pieces. The movie manages to keep its secret for nearly 90 minutes and, although not hard to figure, you won’t have it spelled out by me.

Drawing on George Romero as well as Spielberg (teenage 8mm filmmakers both), Super 8 is part travesty, part homage. Abrams has something of Romero’s skepticism and cheesiness. He’s less cloying than Spielberg and hardly concerned with superficial verisimilitude—although it is possible that the first Walkman in America showed up in an Ohio 7-Eleven. Abrams’s kid-clutter mise-en-scène is more extreme; his sense of humor is wilder. (The obligatory wall of scribbled messages is entirely devoted to missing pets.) Before the movie ends, suburban heaven becomes a war zone of tanks and explosions, while an instance of mind-melding rapport between the kids and the whatzit is near-hilarious in its deadpan sentimentality. And through it all, the kids keep working on their project. In a sense, that movie is Super 8 itself—the intensity vaporizes thought as the galloping pace tramples narrative logic into dust. (According to the press notes, the actual Super 8 movie was shot and directed by Abrams’s teenage cast.)

Named for an obsolete cinema technology, Super 8 is involving enough to create its own reality. (Exiting the theater, you may instinctively duck to avoid an SUV plunging out of the sky.) The movie begins by evoking a mom crushed to death in a steel-mill mishap, and it never wanders very far from the spectacle of smashed metal and shattered glass. The whole thing feels like one long car crash—not meant as a put-down. Machines exist to pulverize or be pulverized. Without necessarily meaning to be, Super 8 is an American tale, dramatizing the long-ago crack-up of the nation’s industrial infrastructure.

 
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15 comments
Jeff Z
Jeff Z

I'd venture to say that the commenters here are almost confusing "cliche" with "genre"... do they go to Westerns and complain about the "cliche" horses? This is a Spielbergian family sci-fi adventure and was never advertised as anything but. Also, I can't possibly express how tired I am of people attending movies like this only to make a mental list of the (flagrantly escapist) film's incongruities with "reality" and leave the theatre proudly dissatisfied and feeling as if they've figured something out. Fun movie, liked it.

A Geisendorf
A Geisendorf

I completely agree that this film was mostly an homage. It might not be on the Oscar list but it was a fun time that made me feel like I was 13 again.

Jack M
Jack M

An awful movie. It was just one Speilbergian cliche after another - kids estranged from their parents who save the world and teach their elders the value of love, ETs, and so many explosions it was ridiculous. I was eye-rolling by the film's end, and I don't do eye rolls.

Ricpantale
Ricpantale

Are you serious with this good rerview?Do you know anything about good filmmaking?Here's why Super 8 sucked1. The kids were annoying/one more "Mint" or Production Values would drive anyone up a wall.2. Grusome death of mother, (Off screen) totally un-called for.3.Unbelievably brave kids who out smart, Police, Military..is Cliche'4.Over long over loud train wreck.5. School teacher runs head on into an express train, causing an explosion and total devestation, and survives.6.Super 8 camera, and Car survive, when everything is destroyed.7.US Air Force personnel are mean viscious killers....8. Monster is always unseen while he steals everything that has a motor in the town.9.Parents don't understand their kids, but suddenly come to realize what Einsteins they all are. and cherish them..10.The secret underground lair where the Monster is trying to put things together is lined with bodies hanging upside down waiting for what?11. The kid faces off the monster and tells him he understands..(1951 The Thing) 12. The monster gently puts him down and goes on to kill other people.13. The Monster understands english?14. The monster looks like a fake rip-off of Alien, but has legs, and can rebuild a Space-ship.15. The story is not about Sci_fi so much as it is about Brainy kids who have disfuntional Fathers and how they must come together. The Monster is a by-product.16. The families all stare up at the night sky in wonderment of the escaping creature, while not being in the least afraid of falling, jeeps, tanks, etc. and debris that is crushing evrything around them..

Should I go on? What did I miss...

laughingacademy
laughingacademy

The heavies are Air Force, not Army. Otherwise, spot-on review.

Adam Stevenson
Adam Stevenson

Probably the best and most interesting review I've read of the film yet - really looking forward to seeing it.

Sakara
Sakara

and just how MANY movies have been called super 8 over the years...? Not exactly an origonal title.

Adam Stevenson
Adam Stevenson

What a bizarre comment. You're insulting the TITLE? Seriously? Good grief. By the way, "original" doesn't have two 'o''s.

Sakara
Sakara

ANAL retentive does have two "a"s in anal, mr school teacher. or should i call you anal adam, no doubt like your school friends did?

yeah, this movie sounds like another godfather, casablanca, and citizen kane all rolled into one.

Bollua
Bollua

Actual knowledge of the English language is not being anal retentive. For example, using capital letters for proper names and titles is good English usage, as in Casablanca or Citizen Kane.

Sakara
Sakara

and, before you can correct me, buddy was played by morey amsterdam on dick van dyke. so, there, i was actually wrong.

but, most movies today still suck.

Sakara
Sakara

well, buddy hacket, i do like the olde dick van dyke show (though i threw away my tv in 2007)

and, yes, uncle joe stalin, it's ok if you call me a reactionary...cause i think many a novel and "simple" old movie are better than most contemporary movies or, ironically, all the....sarcastic...movies from score sleazy or little johnny godard.

Buddy
Buddy

No, as a matter of fact, 'Super 8' and '8mm' aren't the same title, any idiot can see that. As for 'you kids'- I'm 44 years old, and my real beef with you is the fact that you seem to hate nearly everything, including cinematic greats like Godard, Scorcese, Hellman, Truffaut, etc., and express that hatred in the most base, reactionary and thoughtless manner.

Sakara
Sakara

so the nick cage movie "8mm" isn't really the same title...?

Yeah, i'm pissed off at the childish movies, made for teenagers now days----you kids don't know what a real movie is.

Buddy
Buddy

Sakara, don't you have anything better to do than post snarky comments that reveal your ignorance and bad temper? Btw, according to Imdb this is the only film titled 'Super 8'.

 

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