To begin with, I need to get this complaint out of the way. Nearly every review of Super 8 that I have read has compared it with Steven Spielberg’s iconic science fiction films of the late 70’s/early 80’s: Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Super 8 shares a setting in common with Close Encounters and shares a child-centric theme with E. T. – and that is it!
I think the problem from the outset is that because Super 8 is set in 1979 and is produced by Spielberg that nearly everyone is comparing it to Spielberg’s two sf films. Super 8 is about as much a tribute or homage - or whatever other noun you want to give to it - to those two films, as it is to James Cameron’s The Abyss or Avatar. The way in which Super 8 dramatizes an alien encounter is very different. To put it very simply: E.T. and the gray aliens in C.E.O.T.T.K. are non-violent and the creature in Super 8 is most decidedly not!
The story of Super 8 centers on Joe Lamb, whose mother has died in a terrible accident. He is being brought up by his father, who as deputy-sheriff of small town Lillian Ohio, is unable to help his son through his grief. Summer vacation has arrived and Joe’s best friend Charles wants to spend it making a super 8 zombie film to enter into a local film festival. Charles’ film crew includes Cary, the pyromaniac special effects man, Martin, the leading man with a weak stomach and Preston the quiet jack-of-all-trades. Charles tells Joe that he has convinced Alice Dainard to play the wife of the detective in their film. They all sneak out at midnight to a local train station, with Alice driving them there in her dad’s car. While they are shooting, a train rumbles toward the station and crashes into a truck, that has parked itself on the tracks. The kids escape the carnage of the train wreck and quickly return to their homes before the authorities arrive at the scene of the crash. Charles is upset that his film has been ruined by the crash, but has the film developed to see if he can salvage any of the footage. Unknown to him, his super 8 camera has captured not only the crash, but a monstrous creature that escapes from a cargo car.
J. J. Abrams spends much of the first third of Super 8 developing the characters of the film; particularly Joe, his father, Alice and her father and the reasons for the terse relationship between these characters. Abrams also uses the making of Charles’ super 8 zombie film as a way of showing the gradual growth of the military presence in the small town, which begins with their recovery of all the evidence at the site of the train wreck. The creature that escapes from the train wreck is only seen very sporadically until the very end of the film and that makes the mystery of its origins and motivations for some of its questionable actions more intriguing. The script, written by director Abrams, is fairly intricate and complex for what could have been a straight forward monster movie. Abrams was as concerned with telling the story of the problems of the main characters, as he was in unfolding the mystery of the creature that appears to be attacking the small town.
There is a good balance of action and dramatic sequences in Super 8. Just when the action picks up and things are getting tense, the film returns to one or more of the characters' smaller problems that helps to put the overall situation in perspective. Super 8 works as both a humanistic drama and an action sci-fi film; blending the two elements fairly well. The film could have benefited with the addition of a little more humor, as some of the human drama bogs the film down at times.
If there is such a thing as Humanist Adventure SF, then J. J. Abrams has created it with his flair for using the structure of science fiction to demonstrate the positive potential of humanity. Although Abrams does commit to creating a truly menacing monster, he seems to be far more interested in the human story of a father and son who are dealing with the devastating loss of their wife/mother.
For my generation, Super 8 is a nice nostalgic trip to the late 70’s. I was one of those teenagers in the mid-late 70’s who filmed movies on Super 8 and the film does a nice job showing the passion and creativity of making these films. I do wonder how Charles’ could afford a sound camera, coming from a large family as he does, but that’s a minor quibble that only a super 8 geek like me would notice. I do wonder what younger viewers who were not even born in 1979 think of Super 8’s setting. I like to think that the kids of ’79 aren’t much different than the kids of ’11, but I fear that they might find this time period as alien as the late 40’s are to this child of the 60’s. I applaud Abrams for his artistic integrity to set Super 8 in the 70’s – obviously a time of his youth – because he might have had more commercial success with a contemporary setting.
One thing that Super 8 does, that most contemporary monster movies do not do, is that it delivers a positive message; especially at the end of the film. Some people may think that the end of Super 8 is unsatisfying, unrealistic or just plain anticlimactic. However, in the context of the human drama that leads up to it, the conclusion makes perfect sense. To the more cynical modern film goer, Super 8 may seem too traditional, but I found it a good blend of the modern sensibilities of current political and environmental tensions, with the slightly gentler and more understanding optimism of the past. Super 8 is humanist drama that uses a science fiction plot to deliver a message of hope to both the new youth and the more experienced generations of the past.