The formula for the ‘perfect’ summer blockbuster, as set by the films of the mid-70s, is a combination of exciting action and an emotionally resonant story. The original blockbuster, Jaws, is a perfect example of that, and so are Raiders of the Lost Ark, Terminator 2, and Inception. JJ Abrams’ extended Spielberg tribute, Super 8, attempts to join that pantheon. How well it succeeds in that endeavor largely depends on whether or not you find the emotional story resonant.
While many critics are hung up hunting for specific Spielberg references, I think Super 8 is going for a stylistic homage by mimicking the feeling Spielberg’s early work evokes in audiences. Watching the early films of Spielberg, one cannot help but be filled with a sense of wonder and awe, whether in the Map Room in Tanis or Devil’s Tower. I don’t think that Abrams is necessarily doing shot-for-shot remakes of specific Spielberg scenes, but rather invoking the overall sense of childlike adventure that Spielberg has delivered to audiences time and time again.
Super 8 depicts Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), and Joe’s movie making friends, including Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), whom Joe crushes on, and their encounter with a mysterious train crash and the train’s contents. Parallel storylines also depict an extraterrestrial wrecking havoc on the small town of Lillian, Ohio, and Joe’s dad (Kyle Chandler), the local deputy, investigating the military activity that results. By the end of the film, of course, all three plotlines come together for the big emotional finale.
Abrams clearly grew up with Spielberg, and seeks to combine his own love of ‘mystery boxes’ and Spielberg’s use of science fiction elements to tell stories about parental relationships. Super 8 is definitely the bridging of these two interests, and although the film isn’t 100% successful in terms of melding together it’s two foci, it’s still a joy of a movie, and a fun ride. I haven’t felt this good walking out of a movie in a while.
I think the mystery element is solid, and the slow reveal of the alien mostly works, perhaps in spite of the creature design, which looks like a cross between the Cloverfield monster and the Abrams’ directed Star Trek movie, making it look more familiar than it should.* The movie unfortunately also contains a large info-dump scene, in which the entire history of the alien is explained to the audience. Ultimately, what makes it work so well is playing into the ‘sympathetic creature’ trope that is intertwined with the monster movie genre. This definitely makes it pay off more than Close Encounters, where the aliens are merely there to resolve the plot, rather than having a story themselves.
Maybe what allowed me to connect to the emotions in the story is that I seem to be more susceptible to catharsis than most people. I enjoy the feeling of characters having some kind of emotional satisfaction at the end of a film, not so much as a Joycean epiphany, necessarily, but a new understanding of themselves and the world. That being said, I teared up at the ending of this movie, in the same way that several Pixar films, Field of Dreams and The Darjeeling Limited do.
What I liked about the ending was the realization that the entire movie was about understanding. In the third act of the film, as Joe and his friends attempt to rescue Alice, Joe and the alien have a close encounter that results in them sharing a psychic bond. While we never get the alien’s thoughts, it is clear that Joe and the alien come to understand each other. Likewise, so do Joe and his father. It’s not that the emotions of the characters are different, there are no huge shifts in how they all feel about each other, but they have come to understand the other’s point of view. And this is the key to the movie: understanding. It’s not that Joe suddenly realizes his father has been a great dad (he’s not), but he and his father come to understand each other as people, in the same way Joe understand’s the alien’s feelings about his time on Earth, and the urgency he feels to leave.
Overall, Super 8 is a lovely film, and so far one of my favorite movies of the year.
*I suddenly realized here that part of what makes Jaws so brilliant as a monster movie is that everyone more or less knows what a shark looks like.