JJ Abrams likes keeping secrets. He has a penchant for keeping his film plots quiet. The director of the secretive disaster movie Cloverfield and creator of the TV series Lost, Abrams finds pleasure in making his audience unable to anticipate. “I just feel like now that before the movie starts, I’ve been told almost everything,” he says. With JJ, we’re lucky we get anything .
His latest installment Super 8 occurs in the rural town of Lillian, Ohio. The year is 1979, and Abrams makes us fully aware we are spending time in his boyhood era. He unleashes a time capsule of greatest hits like “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “My Sharona” listened to on a newly purchased Walkman. The town’s main street has the old-timey effect branded onto its store signs and streetlights. News reports on Three-mile island make white noise and bounce off the wood-paneled kitchen walls. The scene is certainly set.
Using some of this new technology is Charles (Riley Griffiths), who wields his 8mm camera around while gathering his rag-tag group of friends together for his Zombie movie which he plans to enter in a local competition. The main character, Charles’s best friend and chief makeup artist, is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a somber kid-artist who paints figurines and designs toy trains. His mother’s earlier death at a steel mill heightens tension between his deputy father and also opens a relationship with Alice (Elle Fanning), an older girl who reluctantly signs on to play a part in Charles’s movie.
The allusions to Spielberg are evident and for a reason; he is the producer after all. The classic grouping of middle school friends seem omnipresent in Spielberg flicks, take The Goonies and E.T. Abrams combines the familiar collection of kids, mystery, and monsters and it syncs up well for the majority of the film. The plot follows a familiar road but the element of surprise and emotional correspondence give a tired sequence new life, for a while.
In order to shoot “The Case,” the title of Charles’s movie, Alice steals her dad’s car and without a license drives them to an old train platform for a midnight scene. They begin rolling when a speeding train comes charging down the tracks and Charles, seeking “production value” decides to re-shoot the scene as the train blisters by. Then things get weird. A reckless truck soon crashes into the freighter that enacts an exaggerated domino-like effect of cars being tossed into the sky and returning to the earth smoldering with mysterious content. Shades of Michael Bay linger on into the fire-lit night .
The group, filled with nerds and oddballs, like the pyrotechnic brace face that keeps fireworks in his backpack, struggles with keeping their twilight account secretive. The military soon bombards the quiet town with oppressive orders. Metal objects begin disappearing, dogs start fleeing the radius, and even some people go missing. Like the great child narratives, the adults are clueless, and the government is clearly hiding something from us. The young film makers are trapped in their heads; worried, determined, but opportunistic. Their small movie becomes the driving force in their quest to stay together, figure out the unknown, and in a less cliché way, find themselves.
Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning bring this blossoming tale some young teen attraction and show their acting chops throughout. However, the relationships soon get sidetracked by the necessity of the monster’s plot . Flickering lights and floating cars soon take over the foreground and Joe’s stern father gets overshadowed by the military’s growing presence. These camouflaged scenes become distracting to our main character’s plight and become a beacon of questioning that is never torched properly. Inquiries into this mysterious origin are hinted at, but only serve to miss the point of this group story.
The human element of this film is what glues these kids together. Besides the undeveloped, maternal sentimentality that occurs between young Joe and his deceased mother, the growing friendships and adapting household brings in a Stand By Me appeal where the innocent and curious place faith in untested collaboration. The destructive forces in Cloverfield certainly make their way into this film though, and the “production value” is sure to make Charles proud. Abrams puts a heavy dosage of suspense and fire-power that orchestrate into large noise. But this does not crescendo out of control and remains a monster mystery adventure tethered to a coming-of-age, interpersonal maturation.
Though Spielberg’s presence, sans a John Williams score, is noticeable, Super 8’s structure is injected with strong performances that refuel a unique group adventure. Abrams is unable to pull the two separate plots into complete harmony but they synchronize just enough; and just enough for Abrams is a whole lot more than anyone can ask for, at least this summer.