To some extent, producers remain the odd monkey wrench in the gears of the auteur theory. We all like to point at directors as the overall visionaries behind films, and we also have a pretty good idea how writers, actors, and various crew members can influence a film, but what about the producer. It would be easy to dismiss them as money-men without much artistic influence, but that’s not really true either. Certain high-profile producers like Jerry Bruckheimer have been able create a stamp of their own that clearly pervades the films they put their names on. Certain name-directors like Steven Spielberg have used the producer credit in order to usher in works by like-minded (but less known) directors. The man who seems to most thoroughly confound the line between the director and producer role as of late seems to be J.J. Abrams, a filmmaker with an acute sense of what projects can be highly commercial while still being hip and interesting. Whether or not Abrams personally directs one of these projects often seems incidental (he adds little to the ones he chooses to direct, aside from a lot of lens flare). I’ve never been a huge fan of the snarky side of his tastes (which have manifested in projects like Mission: Impossible 3, the T.V. series “Alias,” and some of the lesser parts of his Star Trek), but when he’s in he’s making science fiction projects with cryptic advertising campaigns like Cloverfield and the show “Lost” he can be pretty awesome. Fortunately his newest film, Super 8, falls distinctly in this latter category.
Abrams film is set is a small town called Lillian which is situated in the middle of what would today be called the rust belt, but this film is set in the late 70s and the town still has an active steel mill. An accident at this mill would claim the life of the mother of the film’s main character, a thirteen year old named Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney). Joe experiences a certain period of grief, but life does go on and this young teenager does have plans for the summer which he has no intention of setting aside. Namely he wants to help his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make an amateur zombie movie using a Super 8 camera. Joe is working makeup and special effects for the project while their other friends act, film, and create pyrotechnic effects out of commercial fireworks. At the last minute they decide to add another member to their motley crew, a girl named Alice (Elle Fanning) who will play a role in the film while also chauffeuring them around in her father’s car (which she drives anyway despite being well under the driving age). One night they take this production out to a seemingly abandoned train station where they are witness to a very real and very frightening train crash which will be the catalyst for a long adventure.
The center piece for Super 8’s advertising has been a shot of an overturned train car getting dented from the inside out by some angry force within. Yes, that is exactly what it looks like, a large creature escaping from its imprisonment. I’ll try not to spoil anything further, but I do think I need to come out and establish that this is indeed a monster movie. When the creature pops up he’s pretty well rendered by top of the line special effects, but it takes a while before we get to that point. Like Jaws before it, this is a film that conceals exactly what the central monster looks like until near the end. This is probably a wise choice, the impact of CGI creatures on modern audiences has been greatly diminished over the years and the sight of such a creation (no matter how well crafted) is about as anticlimactic as a fake looking rubber shark would have been in 1975.
The Spielberg comparisons don’t end there, not by far. Super 8 is an unabashed tribute to the early works of Steven Spielberg on all levels. It has the child protagonists of an E.T., the suburban chaos of a Gremlins, the dysfunctional family dynamics of a Poltergeist, the more modern effects work of a Jurassic Park, and certain (arguably unearned) shots and plot developments clearly invoke Close Encounters of the Third Kind. What’s more, the idea of children making amateur genre films with home video equipment is taken directly from certain mythology about Spielberg’s real life childhood. That the film has borrowed so heavily from another filmmaker does not help the case for Abrams as an auteur (though his beloved lens flare is in full effect), but I don’t see it as some sort of unacceptable ripoff either. What Abrams has done with Spielberg’s style is not far removed from what Paul Thomas Anderson did in his early films with the styles of Martin Scorsese (Boogie Nights) and Robert Altman (Magnolia) and if I can appreciate those movies in spite of their clear lineage I see no reason not to afford this one the same leniency (Abrams even went the extra step of having Spielberg sign on as a producer, something Anderson never did).
In addition to replicating the tone and style of Spielberg’s early films, Super 8 also replicates the late 70s/early 80s period that they were set in. This isn’t just another act of mimicry, that the film exists in an environment that was that was less cynical about adolescence and rural life is pretty important to its general tone. However, the film’s period detail can at times go beyond mere atmospherics and into almost fetishistic territory. I haven’t seen a film revel in its late 20th century trappings to this extent since Jonathan Levine’s ode to 90s New York, The Wackness. Usually this isn’t too much of a distraction, but at times when they really call attention to something from the 70s (such as an conversation about how “amazing” a portable cassette player is), it can be a bit much.
Of course a big part of why the film is set in the 70s is that children were still allowed relative freedom to run about town without any kind of supervision during that decade, something that’s pretty important when you’re making a film about a bunch of young teenagers. Speaking of the young actors here, they’re all surprisingly good. Casting young actors can always be a really iffy proposition, even if you can get a true prodigy to star in your film there will often be a side character or two that will be really annoying, but here almost all of the young actors are at least competent if not quite good in their respective roles. Joel Courtney is clearly a standout and he perfectly captures the sad but oddly less than devastated way that children deal with grief. Elle Fanning (sister of Dakota Fanning) is also clearly a great talent for someone of her age; in the Fanning and Courtney characters in the film clearly have a crush on one another and in their scenes together the young actors perfectly capture the sort of awkward burgeoning sexuality at the core of youthful puppy love.
While the young cast is good, this isn’t a coming of age film at its heart, it is a summer monster movie. There are some very nice set pieces here like the incredibly intense train wreck scene and a tense scene in an overturned bus. That’s not to say that this is a full on action film and people expecting a non-stop thrill ride of the kind that Hollywood has been offering recently may go home disappointed. That said, I found the movie refreshing in that it isn’t dominated by CGI. Computer effect are used when needed, and they’re used well, but this does not feel like a movie that shot extensively in front of a blue screen, the environments feel very real and there are large segments that are devoid of effects.
Back up, let’s analyze the last sentence of that paragraph: “the environments feel very real and there are large segments that are devoid of effects.” Is that really something to brag about? Yes, in the large budget, Hollywood produced, summer-movie environment of 2011 that is something rather unique. However it is only by those standards that Super 8’s restrained effects work and focus on storytelling is wildly impressive. Compared to the great films that the film was inspired by (or other recent summer triumphs like Inception or The Dark Knight for that matter), Super 8 is more of a minor accomplishment. In the end I think this fits in better with other films that Spielberg produced like Poltergeist or Back to the Future than it does with the Spielberg directed films that it probably aspires to, but that doesn’t mean that is isn’t still a hell of a good time at the theater that should not be missed.
***1/2 out of Four