'Super 8' Favors Emotion Over Action
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
According to a recent profile in the New York Times Magazine, dynamic genre-hopping writer-producer-director J.J. Abrams hates the "reveal." That is to say, he's quite protective of the twists and other special things that come out of his storytelling box, whether they're in reboots and/or installments of franchise pictures (he's the man behind "Mission: Impossible III" and the latest "Star Trek" film) or stuff that's his very own personal thing, as is this new film, "Super 8." In any case, this protectiveness is understandable, but the really crucial thing about how "Super 8" works as well as it does has very little to do with its plot.
And its plot, in case you haven't heard already, owes a certain amount to the work of director Steven Spielberg, who's also, in an exemplary case of inspiration meeting corporate synergy, a producer of the film. "Super 8," set in the late '70s, is in large part a tribute to the sci-fi movies that inspired Abrams during his own boyhood. Indeed, one would not be giving too much away by saying that this film is an "E.T." for a meaner, noisier, more stressed-out era, even while it's set in a year that predates "E.T."'s existence.
The picture begins with some typically Spielbergian visual storytelling. A "Number of days since our last accident" sign at a middle-American steel mill is being reset back to "1"; in the next shot, a boy just on the cusp of his teens sits forlornly on a swing in a snow-covered yard, looking longingly into a locket. This fellow is Joe (Joel Courtney), and he's just lost his mom. His dad, Jack (Kyle Chandler), the local deputy, befuddled by single fatherhood, wants to send Joe to baseball camp for the summer, but Joe, an eager horror film buff and model maker, has other ideas: He's the effects-and-makeup guy for his best friend Charles' little zombie-detective movie, which they're shooting in the Super 8 film format of the title. The portly Charles (Riley Griffiths) snags the devastatingly attractive and deceptively mature (barely 13 and she drives!) Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning). Joe has a devastatingly shy-making crush on Alice, and the complications for that include not just the fact that she's from the wrong side of the tracks but that her surly dad (Ron Eldard, oddly channeling an early-80s Gerard Depardieu) works at the same steel mill where Joey's mom met her demise.
All this is knotty enough, were it merely going to be an homage to the films of John Hughes. But no. One evening, Joey and Charles and the rest of their movie-crazy teen crew (a group limned with not inconsiderable wit and perception by Abrams and his actors) are shooting near the local railroad station -- "Production value!" enthuses Charles when he sees a train approaching -- when a huge locomotive is met head-on, on purpose, by a pickup truck, resulting in a massive derailment with multiple flying freight cars and explosions and, finally, something getting loose. Just what that something is happens to be one of the things that creator Abrams has a dread of sharing with viewers before they actually experience the picture in its entirety, and I too shall not get into the details here. Suffice it to say that the nods to "E.T." and "Close Encounters" and such are just-so enough to be pleasant, and only rarely "off" enough to remind one that there's a reason lightning rarely if ever strikes twice, and why so few filmmakers ever attempt direct homages to those Spielberg works in the first place.
But as I mentioned up top, as spectacular as the film's action is (and the set pieces, while still pretty frantic, are constructed with a confidence and coherence that eluded Abrams in his previous films), the fact is that as each of its plot layers is unpeeled, what's actually revealed isn't as interesting as it kind of promised to be ... and it doesn't matter all that much. As not-mind-blowing as its narrative twists are, "Super 8" works because of, yes, its emotional commitment. (And there, too, is its most telling debt to Spielberg.) The sensitive and not overtly manipulative way that the tentative relationship between Alice and Joey is built and explored is really something. Not only are the characters sincerely and subtly written, but young actors Courtney and Fanning embody them beautifully, never overselling their basic decency or innocence or liveliness, but making the viewer feel those qualities in sometimes unexpected ways. As when Alice busts some surprisingly seductive moves on Joey while in zombie makeup. They're terrific enough that they transcend/redeem the film's ever so critically overblown denouement, which is, admittedly, a made-to-order summer blockbuster "oh-that's-awesome" heart-tugging moment. The reasons you might be thinking about seeing "Super 8" have to do with its big sci-fi action scenes and teen-adventure derring-do material that harks back to "The Goonies"; the reasons you'll remember the movie will be all about quieter, moving intimacy created by its characters.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.