By Richard von Busack
The opening two scenes in Super 8 demonstrate the graphic punch and keen storytelling ability of J. J. Abrams, one of the most exciting action filmmakers today. On the evidence of this, as well as the rebooted Star Trek and Mission Impossible 3, we can look forward to his films in the same way we once anticipated the new Brian De Palma.
We’re in Lillian, Ohio, pop 12,000, in the winter of 1978, and we’re entering the main works of the local steel mill. In slightly slowed motion, a camera tracks to the sign above the floor announcing that it’s been 800-plus days since the last accident. Mournfully, a man on a ladder changes that number to “one”. And the scene dissolves into a little boy Joe (Joel Courtney) sitting on a swing set in the snow by himself.
What I’m describing is the kind of thing that would have been done five times a week during the height of the studio system. Tell me it’s not a lost art, though. It’s clear from these two scenes you’re in the hands of someone who thinks things through. And up to the frustrating ending of Super 8 Abrams doesn’t disappoint. The edge of evil humor in this opener assures us of the cool, sharp entertainment to come.
Something mysterious happens at the after-funeral reception for the boy’s mother, when one of the mourners is arrested by Joe’s dad. Playing the newly widowed father, the town’s deputy sheriff, is Kyle Chandler. Chandler’s an actor who has a satisfyingly ‘70s look; dark and slightly small of stature, you could put him in a police line-up with Robert Forster and Fred Ward. The father’s presence at the funeral is itself another intelligent twist: seeing the aftermath of the industrial accident, we’d assume it was Joe’s father who died instead of his mother. Believe it or not, none of the survivors have any tedious lines about how steel work isn’t for dames, etc.
Months later, the summer of 1979 comes, and Joe and the rest of his four-man gang are enjoying the last day of school. They’re incubating a film project, a tribute to steel-town maverick George Romero. The director is the husky Charles (the Seth Rogen like Riley Griffiths). Charles has had a flash of inspiration: they need a female lead in the film they want to shoot, to make it stand out at the student film fest in Cleveland. Charles’s choice for the role is Alice, the daughter of the man arrested at Joe’s mom’s funeral reception. Alice is played by the laudably cast Elle Fanning: pretty, but not so pretty that her prettiness is all you can think about. There’s a severe and authentic pinch of sadness to her.
Everything goes smoothly. The filmmaker kids are like a post Easy Riders, Raging Bulls version of Our Gang. Abrams’ has them using overlapping dialogue as they conference about their film at the town’s lunch room. And once the cameras roll, it turns out Alice is an absolute natural actress. But there is some resistance from the parents: the gang has to sneak out to film at night, for a clandestine shoot outside the railroad station.
A freight train speeds in, sometime past midnight. “Production values!” Charles crows. That’s when a pick up truck driver careens into the path of the express. Super 8 has some smashing sequences, especially the finale, with a tank battle on an evacuated small town hill.
But this train crash is absolutely lyrical destruction. It’s filmed luxuriously, and it unfolds in stages like a good anecdote. Box cars spin through the sky. It’s the accident of one’s dreams, in which there is sensational wreckage and no one gets hurt.
Even the truck driver (Glynn Turman) is battered but still alive. He turns out to be the science teacher at the high school. The kids escape, but not before Joe salvages an odd piece of wreckage, a kind of white metal Rubiks’ cube.
Super 8 continues to percolate. The Air Force, led by the untrustworthy Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich) arrives and all but puts up signs reading “Nothing to see here, folks”. Meanwhile the military invaders inaugurate something distressingly called “Operation Walking Distance”. Joe’s hobby of making train models leads him to recognize that the crashed train belonged to the Air Force. All the dogs of the town of Lillian disappear. Electromagnetic disruption fritzes the towns’ radio and television. And finally the townfolk start vanishing. It’s clear that something is walking, or crawling, out in the night.
Abrams is replaying of the classic 1950s space-monster movie, though few of them were shot with this kind of daring or visual density. The locations are the Ohio River town of Weirton, West Virginia. It’s a small place but it has all the architectural drama of the rustbelt: the looming smokestacks and furnaces are being devoured by clumps of tree of heaven, a covered steel bridge crosses the main street, and the steep hills of the town keeping things from looking too forlorn. The place has the right look of busted economy, and an undertone of seething about Vietnam. Mindful of tone, Abrams doesn’t reference that that war directly, except as a straight-faced joke in the film within the film.
Whether it is digital augmenting or natural location, this setting looks pleasingly homey, while still being clearly in the middle of nowhere.
The unleashed creature is interested in metal. We can see where it is at night behind a junkyard fence, heavy appliances flying as it roots through them. Yet Abrams doesn’t make more than just a mere visual connection between his monster and the titanism of the steel mill. He doesn’t really bring the setting and the subject together, in other words. I’m grateful for the visual novelty of the steel town, and I understand why the site is treated with affection.
How can the filmmakers not be nostalgic? The US manufacturing base is vanished, along with the union jobs that kept the middle class out of the peonage it’s in today. It’s hard not to look at this vanished steelworking life without tenderness. The way this community hangs together is part of what you’d have to call Super 8's period charm. A gag about how close the boys live to each other is outlined in a five second bike ride: a joke probably sired by Buster Keaton’s chauffeur driven drive across the street in Seven Chances.
But the script didn’t take the steel-mill setting as far as it can go. Super 8 has one monster trapping and stealing people. It could have had two of them: a creature on the loose and the Moloch-like steel mills, sitting and waiting. And the zombie theme of Joe’s movie doesn’t pay out in the way the people are affected by the monster’s presence.
Also, there’s some plot holes that will open up when Super 8 is mulled over. (The film is too fast to think about them when it’s underway.) Why this fateful trainride in the first place? (If you had something as dangerous as this film’s creature around, you probably wouldn’t care to move it.) Why is it that Col. Nelec can’t find what he’s looking for when it’s been in unusually plain sight? And why did a fleeing fugitive of the military never think of taking a pseudonym during his 17 years of hiding?
Super 8 is named after a defunct home-movie film stock; we get to see how that kind of film worked in the movie’s completely endearing end-titles. But this film itself isn't technically retro; Abrams does stunning things with the kind of technology that has arrived since 1979. The sound design makes the creature more fearful to hear than to look at. He is sensationally hideous, though, as if the fabled rat-bat-spider from 1960s’ Angry Red Planet had cost several million bucks.
Abrams is the master of the lens-flare these days, persuading us that there’s depth every landscape. In one moment, this sliver of light is used self-consciously, as when we get a lens flare in a dark pit. Still, Abrams’ praiseworthy insistence on practical effects over CGI make this creature as tangible as the world he attacks. And the scenes of the tank attack on the town’s hilltop are as startling as the T-Rex assault on the San Diego suburbs in Spielberg’s The Lost World.
Speaking of the devil: when we at last get a good look at the monster, it turns out to be Spielberg. The insistence on sentimental awe overcoming invigorating terror is the mark of that director, Abrams' partner here.
Waiting for a beautiful last surprise, we get a dismaying one. Super 8 takes a curve into the most tear-jerking family entertainment, as well as a blatantly huge reference to one of Spielberg’s best-remembered films. Entertaining and deft as it is, Super 8 has the kind of ending you want to walk off like a sports injury.