So Super 8 is a movie that didn’t reveal a ton of information through marketing, and no one involved with the production was saying much at all about it, which left everyone guessing what it would be like. Based on the marketing, it was drawing comparisons to ET, the little bit I could drag out of anyone connected to the film involved Stand By Me, but when I saw it last night, I thought it was most like the 1980’s best movie, The Goonies.
If you were a child at any point during the 1980’s, chances are you saw The Goonies at least once on television. If you’re at all like me, you probably saw The Goonies at least once a week between the ages of 5 and 12 (and you continue to watch it at regular intervals as an adult). For an entire generation, The Goonies is a touchstone with childhood. Super 8 is made for us. Yes, there are definite nods to ET, as well as other early Spielberg classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark. And I can see why people were making the Stand By Me comparisons—the dialogue, especially the way the kids talked to one another, did remind me of that movie. But overall, Super 8 is The Goonies. Just with a monster instead of pirates.
I have thought that Super 8 would be one of the top-five biggest movies of the summer (not that I expect the opening weekend to be so impressive, because I don’t, I just think that it might have some legs and end up earning a shitload of money). After seeing it, now I’m not so sure the appeal will be wide enough to make that happen. For those of us who grew up with The Goonies and those old Spielberg movies, sure—we’re the target audience. But I don’t know that kids now are un-cynical enough to really get with Super 8.
Yes, it’s totally cornball, in the way that all those old “kids on an adventure” movies were. Everything—and I mean EVERYTHING—about Super 8 is a throwback to those old movies. The intentional lens flares (the blue lines, circles, and light bursts reflected on film), the overly-wrought score, the swing between live-wire tension and humor—all of it harks back to a simpler time. And as cheesy as that sounds, go back and look at the movies from the late-1970’s, early-1980’s era. They really were SIMPLE. Audiences didn’t demand the kind of “beat that” one-upmanship we want from our movies today. It was enough for a movie to be exciting without offering any gimmicks. 3D was for desperate franchises (Jaws 3D) or for Disney theme park attractions (Captain EO). I mean, the 1980’s accepted Ewoks!
Super 8 is about a group of kids, anchored by Joe (newcomer Joel Courtney) and Charles (another first-timer, Riley Griffiths). Charles is making a zombie movie to enter into a young filmmaker’s competition and Joe is his makeup and SFX man. Enter Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning, Somewhere), a girl the boys consider to be out of their league. Alice agrees to play a role in Charles’s movie and she also steals her dad’s car to drive everyone to the midnight set, the local train station. Joe clearly has a crush on Alice and she obviously returns his interest, but again, this is not a modern movie. Joe and Alice express their mutual crush through looks, bouts of shyness and forwardness, and hugs. There is no over-sexualizing of children here. Alice is not stomping around in short-shorts and tight tops. She’s dressed normally (for 1979, anyway) and wears little makeup. It’s refreshing and it points out just how early we get to our young actors and actresses these days.
The rest of the group is largely disposable. There’s the scairdy-cat, the dumb one, and the pyromaniac. I can’t remember any of their names. For some reason, the dumb one keeps throwing up. It plays for a good gross-out gag late in the movie. Some people will complain about the nature of these characters—they don’t do anything, story-wise—but like so many movies from that previous era, characters are only as substantial as they need to be. When they’re needed in the group, those three kids deliver their lines and fill scenery, and when they’re not needed you don’t miss them because they aren’t essential. Which–you’ve seen Indiana Jones, right? You know what those disposable characters are supposed to do, and they do that and no more.
As for adults, the only ones that matter are Joe’s dad, Jack (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights), a sheriff’s deputy, Colonel Nelec (Emmerich), and Alice’s dad (Ron Eldard, ER). This is not to say that the other characters are BAD. The acting is good in Super 8—it’s really good coming from Fanning, Courtney and Chandler. It’s just that writer/director JJ Abrams (Lost, Star Trek, Cloverfield) doesn’t waste time on stuff that isn’t Shit Happening. Movies like Super 8—The Goonies, Indiana Jones, etc—they’re Shit Happening movies. They’re about Shit Happening. Doesn’t matter what the Shit is, just so long as it’s Happening. And in Super 8, Shit is always Happening. The kids capture a train derailment on Charles’s super 8 camera and they witness a mysterious something escaping into the night. Their weird old schoolteacher is involved in the accident somehow and he warns them not to speak of it. As the mysterious happenings in their small Ohio town continue to mount, and the presence of the Air Force goes from comforting to threatening (if Noah Emmerich, The Walking Dead, shows up after some kind of “incident” and tells you everything is okay, NOTHING IS OKAY), the kids begin to unravel an old military secret.
It’s preposterous that the kids survive the derailment scene, but isn’t it equally as preposterous that the Goonies survived, too? (One more wrong note and we’ll all be flat.) Again, Super 8 is asking audiences to check their cynicism at the door and just enjoy the spectacle. And as for that score, which yes is emotionally manipulative, it’s by Michael Giacchino (Up). Giacchino is too a good of a composer to rely on such tricks unless he’s specifically directed to do so. Go back and listen to the score of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s great, yes, with an all-time theme, but it’s just as heavy-handed. Super 8 is more than just an homage to early Spielberg—IT IS early Spielberg. And given how bad Indiana Jones 4: THIS NEVER HAPPENED was, I’d say Abrams is doing early Spielberg better than Spielberg is.
I really enjoyed Super 8. Kind of loved it, even. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting—it’s so much more than just a facsimile of those old movies—but I found I liked it more for being a little surprising like that. I’m just not convinced that we’re not too cynical for a movie like this. There are people, probably a lot of them, who won’t be able to turn off the sarcasm switch for a couple hours and enjoy such innocent entertainment. Super 8 asks you to buy a lot of improbabilities and to roll with a lot of (intentional) dings and nicks that we generally associate with bad movie-making—stuff like those lens flares, the logic gaps, the barely-there characterizations. In trade, though, you get a beautifully shot, well-paced action/adventure that entertains like few movies do these days.