Super 8, J.J. Abrams’ return to the sci-fi/coming-of-age tales of the late 1970s and early 1980s has been shrouded in the same air of mystery as so many of the innovative director’s previous projects. The marketing campaign has revealed details on the project bit by tantalizing bit. Easter eggs, viral marketing efforts, trailers and clips have slowly but surely come forward to give audiences a taste of what they can expect from this early-teen-tale infused with elements of horror, adventure, and fantasy (if said fantasy is that of a young boy daydreaming about the bad-ass-girl-next-door).
In keeping with their slow-reveal strategy, the Super 8 team is planning to unveil another element in their unfolding marketing campaign — which a little birdie told us you can get the early skinny on by asking the following question on twitter: “What is the #Super8Secret?” and going to the “what is the #Super8 secret?” site HERE.
But what of the film as a whole? Last week we were able to attend an early screening of Super 8 with an audience filled with entertainment journalists anxious to see what Abrams would bring to this re-visitation of (what are now considered) sci-fi and adventure film classics. The director set out to capture some of the magic that was present in beloved childhood favorites such as E.T., The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and to some degree Stand By Me.
The early reviews are in and they are overwhelmingly positive — the film currently has a 93 percent standing on Rotten Tomatoes. Take a look at our reflections, as well as what some of the critics have to say, about one of this summers most anticipated films.
A Movie About Loving Movies:
Among other things, Super 8 is a movie about loving movies. Aside from the similarities in style, setting, and tone to the aforementioned films, the premise of this film deals with the central characters young, but powerful, passion for filmmaking.
The story is set in 1979, a time before the easy availability of prosumer digital recorders, non-linear editing systems, and phones that are ready and able to record even the most mundane details of our everyday lives. Yet, five intrepid friends with a deep love for zombie films band together to make a super 8 short – to enter into a film festival. They are: The earnest director, Charles (Riley Griffiths); his trusty actors/crew Preston (Zach Mills) and Martin (Gabriel Basso); the short film’s resident zombie Cary (Ryan Lee) a boy with a near all-consuming passion for pyrotechnics; and the special effects make-up artist (and hero of our tale) Joe (Joel Courtney).
In reality Abrams empowered this group of young actors with a great amount of influence on the creation of the (zombie) film within the film titled simply The Case. (You can see the final product in the credit sequence at the close of Super 8.)
In the world of Super 8 Joe has lost his mother in a tragic accident and is left with a father who does not know or understand him and is, essentially, entirely out of his depth. He takes comfort in his friends and the project they are creating. When Charles reads that one of the key elements in film is “story,” he realizes that he has not yet given the audience a reason to care if the main protagonist (a detective) is killed by the zombie hordes in The Case. With that in mind, the group decides that “the detective” needs a love interest who can help illuminate the human element in the story.
Enter the girl.
Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) steps in to play the detective’s wife in The Case – and to play the role of “the girl” in Super 8. The girl, as in the tough-as-nails, car stealing, enigmatic woman-of-mystery in the making. The girl that forces new boundaries between friends. The only girl our Joe wants, and the very girl his father forbids him to see. The girl whose own father was culpable in the death of Joe’s mother. The girl, whose hard exterior shelters a longing for forgiveness. She is temptation, forbidden fruit, and rebellion — the very things that turn a boy into a man.
In the midst of shooting a pivotal scene in The Case, the kids witness a devastating train wreck that unleashes an unknown entity from its hidden prison. The town begins to panic as it is subjected to a series of mysterious disappearances and, as happens in a maturation tale, Joe and his friends must step-up to act when no one else can, or will.
One of the most successful aspects of Super 8 is the simultaneously classic and refreshing way it depicts the relationships between this group of friends.
As Drew from HitFix says:
The stuff the film gets dead right involves the young friends and their love of filmmaking. It taps some of the same spirit that made “Son Of Rambow” such a treat, and setting the film in 1979 evokes a moment when many kids were just starting to get a look at the way films are made thanks to behind-the-scenes specials and magazines like Starlog, and just from the things we see in Joe’s room, it’s obvious he’s been bitten by the bug, and hard.
For Joe, putting make-up on the zombies seems to be almost therapeutic to him, a way to forget the real life death that has cast a shadow over him.
There is a freshness in Joe, a compelling lack of artifice, that in some ways made it necessary for this film to be set in the late 1970s. So often today young characters are drawn with cynicism as their defining trait or are alternatively depicted with a saccharine flavor that inevitably rings as false. The bond that these friends share, and the one that Joe and Alice develop, harkens back to the humor, sweet sense of discovery and endless possibility of the films that Super 8 is referencing.
Yet the film is its own entity, as are the characters that inhabit it.
“I didn’t want the film to look like it was made in 1979,” Abrams told Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss. “I wanted it to look the way we remember films looking from 1979. I wanted to build a bridge between then and now.”
Build that bridge he most certainly did.
Corliss adds in his review:
Given Abrams’ talent for the tease, “Super 8″ has fanboys on point for the movie’s June 10 release. They and other moviegoers may be shocked at how the film plays with genre expectations, then transcends and obliterates them. “The greatest fun and challenge,” Abrams says, “came from balancing a coming-of-age love-story character piece with essentially a monster movie.”
As Eric Eisenberg from Cinema Blend reflects:
Despite being in his mid-40s, J.J. Abrams has successfully honed in on the universal feelings of youth and captures the spirit of an era in a way that makes the audience feel nostalgic but never emotionally manipulated.
In one of the more self-reflexive turn of events in the film, Elle Fanning’s character Alice stuns her friends with her talent when they are shooting The Case, just as Fanning herself shines in Super 8. First time actor Joel Courtney is as natural as he is effective, a true find, he is impossible not to fall in love with – at least a little bit. His is an incredible piece of casting magic. Similarly, Ryan Lee delivers the much needed comic-relief with infectious enthusiasm and skill.
Where the film stumbles some is in the marriage between the development of the story of these incredible kids and the trajectory of the alien storyline. The alien becomes more of an inciting incident than a character in many ways. He is not tied to the kids as much as he is a reflection for them – of the damage that can be done if an individual’s sense of self is curtailed and when we succumb to the baser levels of ignorance. He is the monster we made him, the monster that any one of us (including our Joe) can become if we accede to the temptation of anger and hate. He is an invitation for Joe to let go of the past and embrace the best part of himself, his incorruptibility, and the purity of his heart. The metaphor becomes a bit uneven in moments, and the need to tie the tales together yields one or two occasions of awkward exposition and “here’s where we’re at so far” and “this is what’s up with the alien” interludes.
We know that the film originally began as two separate stories, and the division is still occasionally seen in the plot development.
As Phil Pirrello of IGN points out:
While J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8″ features an alien, it isn’t about aliens. And that’s a good thing.
It’s about a young kid realizing that grief isn’t something you get over, it’s something you learn to live with. It’s about fathers and sons, and the conflict that comes when the former struggles to relate to the latter. All of this is filtered through a very nostalgic, very Spielbergian lens that earns all its heartfelt moments. That is until the movie’s more sci-fi trappings push their way onto the narrative, with “Area 51 this” and “alien that.”
At that point, the movie’s origins as two separate stories, that were combined into one, reveal themselves – and neither one is capable of seamlessly merging with the other.
However the strength of this film (one that will appeal to both a young audience, and those who long for the classic sci-fi films of their own childhood) far outweighs a few stumbles. If there are somewhat clumsy moments, well, there are often clumsy moments in the climb toward adulthood. If we are available to it, the open-hearted nature of this film and these characters will reach us at a place where we still long to be inspired, to laugh, to imagine something greater, to play – and we will leave the theater smiling and lighter than when we came in. More than that, Super 8 offers its audience a beautiful, rare, and often undervalued quality — a breathtaking sense of innocence.
Super 8 opens in theaters on June 10th.
Sources: Screen Rant/See Post For Additional Links
Follow me on twitter @jrothc