Super 8 (2011)

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Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Gabriel Basso, Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, A.J. Michalka, Zach Mills, and Glynn Turman


© Copyright Paramount Pictures

© Copyright Paramount Pictures

This review does not discuss the plot of Super 8. Writer-director J.J. Abrams and the Paramount marketing team have gone through such lengths to conceal it that I feel guilty even suggesting the notion. Besides, it’s the film’s offhand details that grabbed me. Maybe Abrams misspent his youth the same way I did. Maybe he captured on celluloid a universal facet of the human experience. I realise how dramatic that comes off, but consider the seven moments below, my favourite in the picture.

One: the mill’s safety record gets updated. The first shot of Super 8 shows a labourer removing the number 784 from a “Days since Last Accident” sign. We understand right away that a family has been broken, but the details of how Joe (Joel Courtney) lost his mom are kept vague as if to emphasise their irrelevance. When his friends discuss the matter, they blend gossip with fantasy, trying to piece together what the grownups won’t tell them. Even Alice’s (Elle Fanning) more sober account proves inconsistent. We suspect a bit of revision from her father, Louis (Ron Eldard), who feels responsible somehow.

Two: the kids sneak off at midnight to work on their zombie production. They don’t need to operate so clandestinely, of course, but what’s the point of shooting a movie at eight o’clock with your parents’ permission? Super 8 captures the thrills of prepubescent rebellion with such accuracy that we wonder whether parts of it are autobiographical, especially given Joe would be about the director’s age today. On a related note, Cary (Ryan Lee), with his firecracker obsession, has all the makings of a young Michael Bay.

Three: Alice laughs as the boys scramble to film an oncoming train. In keeping with their sex, Joe and his buddies spend an inordinate amount of time dishing out insults and ordering each other to shut up, but their bond seems stronger for it. After all, there’s something liberating in having friends who can call you an idiot and still have your back. The thirteen-year-old girl recognises this, and we feel she might have just found a home. That Fanning can convey all this with a single expression makes her a promising actress. That Abrams set up the shot in the first place makes him a gifted director.

Four: the Kaznyks invite Joe for dinner. If they could, they’d adopt every stray child in the neighbourhood. This, we can tell by their messy house and half a dozen offspring talking over each other, but how do they know that Joe hasn’t had a home-cooked meal in months, that his father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), has been feeding him bar food and takeout? Their son Charles (Riley Griffiths) must have told them, indicating he’s got more on his mind than the Cleveland film competition. He’s a good kid if not always a nice one. I dig that he wouldn’t be caught dead doing the Truffle Shuffle.

Five: Alice pretends to bite Joe. I like how their courtship begins. Boy meets girl, offers her some Twizzlers, and grins like a six-year-old taming his first pet. I don’t mean that he thinks of her as an animal but that he’s got no other frame of reference. From then on, Alice does all the work, gradually narrowing Joe’s personal space. When she nears his neck as a zombie, his face conveys what adults often forget: when you’re in love, feeling a girl’s breath on you is like being naked with her. A grownup couple could make whoopee all night without matching their intimacy.

Six: Jackson and Louis have a polite conversation. One man is consumed by grief, the other by guilt. They lash out at each other, as you might expect, and at their children too because it ain’t an Abrams joint if it don’t got daddy issues. In a lesser movie, the tension would culminate in tearful melodrama, but here we’re given a more subtle resolution. Joe’s father is driven by duty. His animosity doesn’t stem from anger but from fear that the rules of civility might demand acceptance. He’s right, of course, and the amount of hurt Chandler packs in three simple words proves a thing of wonder.

© Copyright Paramount Pictures

© Copyright Paramount Pictures

Seven: Joe and Alice hold hands. You’ve seen it in countless Hollywood pictures before, that shot of fingers intersecting at equal distance from each lover to symbolize their union. When Joe takes Alice’s hand, though, he pulls it toward him as if to confirm there are no more barriers between them. The realism of it moves me. First loves are like a religion. We’re baptised through circumstance, and a first communion can be imposed, but confirmation reveals our true passion. I can think of no moment more passionate than Alice’s hand resting against Jo’s crumpled pants.

Super 8 also has sci-fi elements, most of which derived from Steven Spielberg’s early work, but they comprise the weakest part of an otherwise rousing coming-of-age story. For example, the soldiers in charge of containing the situation give cardboard a bad name, killing an incapacitated man just because and stealing (for kicks, I presume) the locket Joe carries in memory of his mother. Mind you, I almost wish the pendant had stayed with them, given what happens at the end. I’ll give you a hint: it’s a heavy-handed metaphor for one character’s willingness to let go, except we spent two hours watching him move on with life, so the scene feels bafflingly out of place.

Fortunately, Super 8 finds its way back to greatness even after an all too familiar fadeout shot. I urge you to stay during the credits for an Easter egg that demonstrates how the movie should (and, in fact, does) end. I smiled in wonderment through the entire ten-minute sequence, which shows the young cast being convincingly unconvincing (a rare feat) and gives us a clear insight as to why J.J. Abrams made this film, or any other. I guess that makes it my number eight moment.

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