I’ve written before about how all directors have their trademarks – creative calling cards that let you know you’re watching a Scorsese movie as opposed to a Tarantino flick, for example.
I’ve also bashed out more than a few hundred words on the trademark that defines J.J. Abrams body of work.
No, I’m not talking about lens flares, but rather his tendency to largely recreate the films he loves, rather than use that inspiration to create something new (for evidence of this, look no further than The Force Awakens).
Yet when it came time to take a look back at Super 8 – released this month five years ago – what struck me was how, even though the film does indeed owe a huge debt to the films of Steven Spielberg, it still works as a stand alone effort, telling a unique and personal story all its own.
This is visible in every strand of Super 8‘s DNA, from its semi-autobiographical narrative that looks back at what it was like for Abrams growing up a movie-obsessed kid making his own short films, through to its nostalgia-tinged sensibilities, which allow it to serve as a love letter from that same kid to the films of the late 70s and 80s that influenced his eventual blockbuster career.
Set in Ohio in 1979, Super 8 tells the story of 14 year old Joe (Joel Courtney), who recently lost his mother in a steel mill accident.
Joe’s father, Jack (Kyle Chandler), is struggling to cope as both a grieving widow and single dad, and doesn’t know what to make of Joe’s friends Charles (Riley Griffiths), Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Cary (Ryan Lee), and their ongoing efforts to make a zombie movie.
Joining these budding filmmakers is Alice (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the man Jack blames for the death of Joe’s mother.
As a romance slowly begins to blossom between Joe and Alice, the entire group stumbles upon an otherworldly force far more deadly than “zombies” in their movie, one that the US military will do anything to contain…
Like I said earlier, Super 8 is a great example of what J.J. Abrams is capable of when he uses his influences as a jumping off point to create an original story, rather than as an excuse to re-tell an existing one.
Sure, at times it’s strongly reminiscent of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and yeah, it’s undeniably soaked in nostalgia, but it never feels like a complete lift of either of those films, even when wearing its inspirations a little heavily on its sleeve, thanks to the autobiographical elements Abrams has added into the mix.
It’s also worth pointing out that if you’re going to mimic a filmmaker during a particular era, you could certainly do a whole lot worse than copying Spielberg in the 70s and 80s, and the end result is therefore a more well-structured, heartfelt film than Hollywood has generally put out of late (and having Spielberg on board as producer certainly helps from stepping on any toes, either!).
True, the movie’s alien invasion plot thread ends up being less engaging than the human story at the Super 8‘s core. But rather than being an indictment on how Abrams the former, it’s more a compliment regarding how well managed is that latter.
Most impressive of all is how well the screenplay (also written by Abrams) nails what’s it’s like to be a kid, and that’s the best part of it all: these characters are kids who actually behave like real kids – teasing each other, kidding around, getting jealous and falling lovesick – and Abrams perfectly captures each of their voices too.
Helping him immeasurably on this front are the child stars themselves, and while Fanning and Courtney are especially impressive, there’s honestly no real weak link in the junior cast, which is a rare thing.
Regarding the more grown up actors, Kyle Chandler is the obvious stand out, given he’s been offered the most to work with.
Chandler has always excelled at finding the depth in the essentially decent men he tends to play, and here is no different.
His compassionate take on Jack allows us to sympathise with a man trying to do his best despite his personal heartache, even as we want to slap him for keeping his son at an emotional arm’s length.
Adding some extra shine to the actors’ performances is Larry Fong’s gorgeous cinematography; seriously – Super 8 looks fantastic.
Whilst Abram’s ongoing love affair with the lens flare effect does occasionally threaten to mar Fong’s beautiful work, there’s no getting around what a lush looking film this is, with its visuals subtly evoking the period (and filmmaking style) it was set in, selling the warm nostalgia Abrams is shooting for.
Rounding out the aesthetic side of things are the visual effects by ILM, which are as amazing as you’d expect from the one of the biggest hitters in the industry. Although the CGI on display isn’t always as seamless as you’d like it to be, the train crash sequence is owed a nod for its brilliant blend of digital and practical effects work, and the alien creature also deserves props for convincing as a terrifying beastie AND an intelligent and sensitive creature with feelings.
And speaking of feelings, you’ll have plenty of them over the course of Super 8, thanks to the score by frequent Abrams collaborator Michael Giacchino.
One of the most consistently excellent composers working today, Giacchino does a masterful job of composing music that calls to mind the wonder, suspense and emotion typically associated with a score by Spielberg regular (and living legend) John Williams, without sacrificing his own unique style at the same time.
On a less melodious front, the sound design is also noteworthy, not just for the artful cacophony whipped up for the big set pieces, but also for the little ambient sounds scattered throughout the film’s soundscape, which hint at the extraterrestrial forces about to take centre stage.
But for all these technical and artistic achievements, what really makes Super 8 special is what’s happening on a thematic level.
See, like the Spielberg films it tries to emulate, Super 8 is ultimately a story about families – specifically, families which have been torn apart, and the strained relationships that can grow between parents and their kids.
Look out! Spoilers!
For Spielberg, the child of divorced parents and himself a divorcee with children, this is clearly a very personal issue, the effects of which he has been keen to explore throughout his career.
In contrast, the breakdown of the family unit and parent-child angst is not (to my knowledge) something overly close to Abrams heart, given that his parents were married for nearly 50 years and he is himself happily married with a family of his own.
Still, whether or not he can directly relate to the same issues as Spielberg is irrelevant, as he is, after all, a human being, and certainly knows what it’s like to grieve.
And that’s really what the family motif in Super 8 is there for: to drive home the film’s main concern, which is an examination of how we cope with the bad things that happen to us in our lives.
It’s what allows the human and alien-based plot threads to weave nicely together during the climax, as the anguish felt by Joe when his mother died is explicitly compared to the pain experienced by the alien creature when it was imprisoned and tortured.
It’s here that Super 8 makes it’s message clear, when Joe is able to convince the interstellar creature not to kill any more innocent people, and that it’s possible to move on from the hurt we feel, to let it go and keep living.
In what I’d argue is a piece of genuinely affecting symmetry, it’s advice that Joe himself takes shortly after, when – having fully reconciled at last with his dad – he literally lets go of his mother’s locket, allowing it to be absorbed into the alien’s spaceship, taking his sadness with it.
The spoilers! They’re…they’re gone!
Super 8 is a fine piece of movie making, and proof positive that J.J. Abrams does his best work when channelling his cinematic influences into something fresh and original.
Backed by strong performances from its young cast, and filled with as much heart and wonder as the 70s and 80s films it draws influence from, it serves as a reminder that big budget blockbusters are capable telling a human story, even amidst all the spectacle demanded by the genre.
That’s a wrap for this review– now it’s your chance to let me know what you think of Super 8! Agree? Disagree?