Super 8 (2011)

Super 8 (2011) – This article was originally published on on 10 June 2011

I, like everyone, have a certain sense of nostalgia about the way things used to be. Now I think there are a lot of great movies out there. I even think there are a lot of great movies for families (I would say for kids but they’re good for adults too). I’m not saying things were inherently better in the past (that’s how you know you’re getting old and I refuse to get old before I’m even in my 30s), but I can say with all sincerity that they don’t make them like they used to. Just like you can watch a movie from the 1940s and instantly know it’s from the 40s (admittedly the black-and-white cinematography helps), movies from every decade have a certain “vibe,” and man-oh-man do I love that 1980s vibe. I think there were more movies for young people back then that gave them credit. Obviously for teenagers there was John Hughes who created fully realized characters that are STILL more relatable to teenagers than anyone in Disney’s Prom movie realeased today. So if teenagers had John Hughes, kids had Steven Spielberg.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial came out in 1982, two whole years before I was born. I was lucky enough to be raised in the time of home video, so I had it on VHS and watched the hell out of it. Not only were the kids not the morons they seem to be in most modern children’s entertainment, they knew the score better than the adults around them. That’s probably the best thing in the world for a kid to see. As a kid, you’ve spent your whole life being told to listen to adults because they know best. As someone who’s been an adult for almost nine whole years, let me tell you that is absolutely not the case. Even more importantly, the movie was an adventure. As a kid, there was nothing I wanted more than to go on an adventure. In addition to directing E.T., Spielberg produced Richard Donner’s 1985 film The Goonies which pretty much cemented his standing as the film-maker who most understood childhood in the 1980s.

Super 8 is an elaborate homage to the film-making style of Mr. Spielberg, produced by the man himself. The director is J.J. Abrams, best known as the creator of the epic television series Lost. Abrams proved with 2009’s Star Trek that he knows how to put together a pretty damn good adventure. He also did Mission: Impossible III which was good in parts but weak in others. Super 8 is Abrams’ first film as a director that isn’t based on a television show from the 1960s. Attempting to emulate the style of the most successful film-maker in history seems a rather daunting task to undertake.

He is totally up to the task. Super 8 is one of the best films I have seen in 2011. It took me right back to those days of watching VHS tapes until they were worn out. Set in 1979 in a small town in Ohio, the film is about Joe (Joel Courtney). Joe’s mom has just died in an industrial accident and he is being raised by his widower father (Kyle Chandler from TV’s Friday Night Lights), the deputy of the local Sheriff’s department. Joe is friends with Charles (Riley Griffiths), an amateur film-maker directing an amateur zombie flick on Super 8mm film to submit it to the Cleveland International Film Festival’s Super 8 competition. Joe is an amateur make-up artist and model builder so he’s a natural fit to help out. He also has an extra interest since Charles has just got Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Somewhere) to star in the film. Along with their friends Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Basso from Showtime’s The Big C), and Carey (a very entertaining kid named Ryan Lee), they sneak out to film an important scene at the train station at night. Of course the scene that follows is the one that everyone has seen in the trailer. A train passes by. A pickup truck drives madly onto the tracks, followed by a very explosive derailment. The kids are unharmed but scared shitless. And again, as we know from the trailer, something that was on the train gets loose…

And that’s all I’m saying about the story. Go see this movie for yourself. It is phenomenal. As far as a Spielberg-homage goes all the details are technically perfect, but what makes this a great film is not one director imitating another. What makes this movie work is the characterization. Every one of the kids is believable. They use strong language when adults aren’t around and tease each other all the time, just like my friends and I did back in our childhoods in that faraway time called the 90s. The adults are well-developed, even the ones that don’t seem to be at first. The film pretty bluntly states that you only care about what happens in a movie if you care about the characters (you can get away with those meta-references when you have a character who’s a film-maker, even an amateur one) and then goes about making damn sure you care about its characters. There’s an emotional plotline to this movie that’s just as important to the more action-oriented plotline. Everything comes together perfectly. Downsides? Well, some people might be put off by all the “hey, it’s the 70s!” events (Three Mile Island is mentioned on television), music (E.L.O., Blondie, and The Knack), and technology (one guys boasts about his new Sony Walkman), but I was entertained by it. My only minor quibble is the lens flares. Bid budget film cameras don’t do that anymore so anytime you see a lens flare in a movie nowadays it’s a pretty deliberate choice by the director, usually going for a “cinéma vérité” vibe. Star Trek had way too many. Super 8 doesn’t have anywhere near that much of a problem with it but there were just maybe two parts of the movie where I thought “do we really need that blue streak across the screen?” That’s it. That’s my only problem with this movie, and it’s a pretty damn small one. This movie made me feel like a kid again in all the right ways.

Oh and in keeping with the retro feel of this movie, a poster was made for it in the style of poster artist Drew Struzan. If the name doesn’t ring a bell for you, he illustrated the posters for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, Back to the Future, Blade Runner, and more movies than I could possibly list here. If you remember an iconic movie poster from the 1980s, he did it. I’ve said before I wish that movie studios would invest in illustrated posters more often. They tend to be way more amazing and iconic. I’m not sure who the artist is but it captures the feeling of Struzan’s work perfectly. Anyway, check this baby out…

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS UPON SEEING THE MOVIE A SECOND TIME: You know what? I don’t mind the lens flares so much. I think maybe the first time through I was just looking for them because it got on my nerves so much in Star Trek. I also appreciated more this time that some of the smaller roles were filled by reliable character actors like Michael Hitchcock (Best in Show and other Christopher Guest films), AJ Michalka (The Lovely Bones and the band Aly & AJ), Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone), Glynn Turman (The Wire, quite possibly the greatest television program ever), and Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer Simpson). Also the stoner dude from the camera store (David Gallagher) was the little blonde kid from 7th Heaven! That’s hilarious to me. I also still love that poster. I wish it was the official poster for the film. Anyway there aren’t too many movies out there that I will see in theaters twice in less than half a week. You know when I used to do that, actually? When I was a kid.

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