I think in order to talk about J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, one must first talk about “The Case,” the super 8mm movie directed by the titular young protagonists that plays over the end credits of the film. It is a low-budget zombie flick made by the rubenesque Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths) and starring all of his boyfriends plus one femme fatale. A detective must figure out why people are turning into zombies before they kill his wife.1 In short it’s a bunch of dudes making movies2 because they can and they want to: best summer ever. This creative process seems to be what motivated Abrams when he set out to make a monster movie that could both stake a spot in the genre’s canon and pay homage to it’s wondrous and oftentimes idiotic past. He wants to give kids an old fashioned thrill, and he does so effectively in this derivative yet enjoyable film.
Even if he weren’t a producer, Steven Spielberg’s hand can be readily felt in almost every frame of Super 8, and not only only from his early forays into monster mayhem like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. Abrams’ use (perhaps overuse) of lens flare feels quite a bit like War of the Worlds and there is even a shot that feels lifted straight out of Munich. This is not just a film for the plugged in fanboy (there’s an insider Star Wars quip that got a healthy laugh in my theater) but an out and out attempt to match directorial wits with Spielberg. Abrams is trying to replicate the spirit of a young Spielberg film with the benefit of knowing the director’s latter creative forks. It’s nostalgia of nostalgia.
But what of the story? The fun of Abrams’ concept and subsequent marketing is that audience members are left mostly in the dark about what the film is actually about. I can tell you there’s a monster and that it is rightly obscured for the first two thirds of the film. M. Night Shyamalan, the one- time “next Spielberg,” misfired in Signs by showing his (utterly lame) monster too early. Restraint is only half the battle; the creature design here is top notch. It’s a mostly original [redacted] geared to inspire wonder in young minds. It’s all about the monster in Super 8.
That being said, much of the rest of the film feels too corny for a modern audience3. Most of the plot revolves around “vintage Spielberg” conventions. Broken family in peril, misunderstood nerd, daddy issues, fear of government, etc. Abrams put together a well-oiled and nicely sapped machine here, but it’s important to remember that he is paying homage to bad movies. The monster movies that boys watch at sleepovers have plots that are full of holes and superfluous characters, faux emotional progressions and misplaced messages. At one point a boy even yells “Drugs are so bad!” as a stoned adult sleeps his way through a veritable war zone. It helps to have a PSA in your monster movie so moms will feel okay making popcorn for the whole block.
Super 8 seems like a film from another era, which is especially fascinating given Spielberg’s history of hands-on producing. In the 1980s he earned a reputation as a backseat director for his protegé’s projects. He famously wrested most of Poltergeist away from Tobe Hooper. He also took some if not all of the reins from Richard Donner on The Goonies, a film that seems to share a heartbeat with Super 8. In both of those cases, however, Spielberg took a “Story by” but not this time around. When we fade to black, the first credit that comes up is “Written and Directed by J.J. Abrams.” If the elder director did in fact keep his hands out of the honey pot this outing, then what does it say of Abrams who seems to have made a film that feels as closely watched over as those earlier works?
You may have noticed I’ve spun an entire review without mentioning the plot or most of the characters. Not only would it be tough to skirt around spoilers, the truth is I think you’ll find a bevy of options online to whet your palette, but in all honesty I say just go to the theater and experience it for yourself. Super 8 makes for a fun summer ride that’s worth the price of popcorn. If you need more than that, look elsewhere.
Interestingly, Kaznyk is actually making an “infected” film, a sort of zombie sub-genre that would find popularity later on. Ahead of his time. ↩︎
I’m not sure exactly why Judd Apatow got a special thanks in the credits, but I would guess he had something to do with this being a story about dudes making movies. ↩︎
Perhaps that’s a relative stance. People in my theater got a kick out of the trailer for the Kevin James starring Zoo Keeper. ↩︎