“Super 8” is exactly the kind of fun, exciting summer movie adventure we haven’t seen since the heyday of, well, Steven Spielberg.
Writer-director JJ Abrams was born in 1966. In 1975 Spielberg accidentally invented the summer blockbuster with “Jaws.” In 1977 “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” came, and in 1982 it was “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.” Watching “Super 8,” the new film from Abrams, that Spielberg produced, it’s pretty clear that Spielberg’s early work had a profound impact on Abrams. If Spielberg hadn’t produced Abrams’ latest film, he’d have no choice but to sue.
Where Spielberg’s “ET,” set in the sunny California of the early ‘80s, reflected the early promise of the Reagan presidency, Abrams’ “Super 8” shifts the action back three years and 2,400 miles east to the malaise of a wheezing Rust Belt town, Lillian, Ohio, limping toward even worse days. The mood of Abrams’ film and alien is fittingly darker, with Walter Cronkite discussing Three Miles Island and the townsfolk convinced that the Russians have stolen their microwaves oven.
Abrams waste no time in setting the tone, showing us young Joe Lamb sitting alone on a swing out in the cold-blue, as people mingle inside his home, saying their last goodbyes to his mother and critiquing the spread. Joe’s friends are a predictably likable ragtag bunch of varied interest—the filmmaker, the model maker, the firebug, the math nerd—who fall into an almost Mamet-like middle-school patter, replete with stepped on lines, name-calling and observations about turkey rolls while huddled around a casket.
Fast-forward four months, and the kids are making a zombie movie. One night they sneak out of their homes to shoot footage out by the old train depot. But as the scene reaches its emotional climax, Joe notices a speeding a pick-up truck out in the distance, one that suddenly makes a sharp turn onto the tracks and starts racing directly for the oncoming train, causing a jaw-droppingly over-the-top chain reaction of explosions, as the train derails and boxcars fly everywhere.
As the kids approach the train, they slowly realize that the bloodied driver is “Old man Woodward,” their science teacher, who warns them to run and tell no one what they saw, lest they and their families be killed. And with that, the kids run screaming as a phalanx of Air Force goons come running to the scene.
Abrams meticulously recreates an immersive trip to the ‘70s. The soundtrack isn’t just loaded with Chic, The Cars, The Knack and ELO, but the sounds of typewriters clacking, gas pumps dinging, Coleco handheld football beeping… for a child of the ‘70s it’s an experience that jumpstarts more flashback than a handful of brown acid.
Elle Fanning, as the pretty older blonde Joe falls for, raises her game to previously unforeseen heights, giving a turn not be overlooked. Dragged into taking a role in the gang’s film, Fanning starts off all grouchy, snarling blue-collar adolescence. But during the first read-through of her lines, she reaches down and delivers a speech with all the grown-up pathos and sincerity the part calls for—miles beyond what her new friends could dream of, before turning to the guys to ask, “Was that OK?”
Abrams film covers all the familiar emotional ground we came to expect from Spielberg—a longing to go home, coming of age, first love, death and rebirth—hardcore Joseph Campbell territory. But the film is also very much a the art of filmmaking and a love of movies, with the kids, particularly the director, Charles, fretting over production values, make-up, love-interests and such, but it’s done in an amusingly self-aware way.
And for the love of god—stay for the credits, which are as good as any you’ve ever seen.