Super 8

Hollywood used to know how to make summer movies. You know the kind with sad kids finding their way with the help of aliens, pirate treasures or magic. Steven Spielberg was the master of that genre, drawing on sixties B movies, earlier serials and Disney live action films, for inspiration. And even though he was a baby boomer himself and made his films for the following generation, they are near and dear to the heart of every baby boomer. We see ourselves as always twelve years old and it’s always summer with some kind of adventure waiting for us in the unexplored woods. Adulthood is an unexpected and unwelcome development. And then Spielberg stopped, probably feeling he’d said all that needed to be said about kids, aliens and magic. And as an artist once you’ve shed that innocence, it’s hard to get it back. There have been a few attempts at recapturing the Spielberg summer film vibe, but nobody could do it like the man himself.  Lately summers have been filled with superhero movies and action sequels, which often deliver coolness but not that innocence that the bearded one gave us with such ease.

At least until now.

J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is now the best Steven Spielberg film not directed by Steven Spielberg, although he did produce it. It has all the classic elements. Joe Lamb, played by newcomer Joel Courtney, is a smart and imaginative kid. Like all kids in this genre, he was closer to his mother than his father, but his mother dies in an industrial accident. That summer, Joel  is still grieving but he’s committed to spending the summer of 1979 helping his friend Charles, played by Riley Griffiths, make a super 8 movie about zombies. Joe serves as makeup artist, cinematographer, model maker and occasional extra. Joe’s father, Jackson, played by Kyle Chandler, is a deputy sheriff in their small Ohio Town. He too is grieving, and so far is not rising to the challenge of bonding with his son, whose rearing he’d left mostly to his wife.

One night while filming a scene near the railroad depot, there is a train wreck. Afterwards, strange things start happening. People disappear, power lines are torn down, engines are ripped out of cars and microwaves and other appliances are stolen out of electronics stores. When the Air Force moves in, taking over the cleanup and the investigation, eventually to the point of evacuating the town, it becomes obvious that there is more to the situation than thought. Of course it’s the kids who first realize this and take it upon themselves to investigate.

The performances here, especially by the child actors are terrific. Joel Courtney joins Henry Thomas, Sean Astin and others as the emotional center of one of these movies. He doesn’t project his pain overtly but you can tell from his face that Joe is hurting. It’s a remarkable performance for a first timer. Riley Griffiths is entertaining as a budding filmmaker, obsessed with his latest project to the point that he actually talks to a girl because he’d read in a magazine about filmmaking that having a love interest makes the main character more interesting and sympathetic. He sees the need for that kind of emotional resonance without really understanding it. It’s pretty funny. Elle Fanning, the aforementioned girl is moving as the damaged daughter of a flawed father and AWOL mother. But she’s also smart and talented.

The best element is the script by J.J. Abrams which connects several generations of geek filmmaking and knits them together in an amazing package. He made super 8 films as a child much like his model and idol Steven Spielberg did. Abrams takes a plot, which is not that original, adds in emotional levels which are not very subtle or hard to understand, and makes a young adult classic. Abrams understands that emotional resonance that eludes his character Charles.

It is important for artists to move forward; to push the boundaries of their artform and reflect current concerns and issues. But every once in a while we need to look back to a time that may have seemed more innocent, probably more because we were, and not the time. That doesn’t matter. The pull of nostalgia is sometimes overwhelming.

And it’s OK to give into it every so often.

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