Super 8 is the best Steven Spielberg movie to come along in years.
And it isn't even a Spielberg film.
Spielberg's name is on the project as executive producer, just as George Lucas' name is on Spielberg's Indiana Jones movies as producer. But Super 8 was written and directed by J.J. Abrams, who is better known for his work as a producer of "Lost," "Alias," and a variety of other television shows. Nevertheless, it is the most Spielbergian film to come along in many years,a veritable homage to the master of blockbuster films inhabited by preadolescent protagonists. Among the Spielberg effects that Abrams incorporates in this science-fiction coming-of-age thriller are the trademark bicycles spinning into getaway mode, the classic suburban settings, the snappy potty-mouthed dialogue among kids, and the Orwellian military bad guys, reminiscent of E.T.
Abrams creates the best kind of suspense, chilling us with the terror of what we don't see, rather than grossing us out with what we do see — thus doing what Spielberg did so effectively in the first half of Jaws. We know something scary is out there, but it is always obscured by the likes of train cars, bushes, or gas station signs. Our hearts pound and our imaginations run wild as we endure long moments of eerie silence while the camera takes us down paths we would rather not tread. Fearing the unknown is always more terrifying than facing a concrete enemy.
Best of all, Abrams employs the particular kind of coming-of-age storyline for which Spielberg is known. Yes, there's a monster out there, but the real monster is at home, in the form of an unnamed tension between parent and child that has to be resolved. In this story, the tension begins with a mother's funeral. Her son Joe (Joel Courtney) is not allowed to associate with Alice (Elle Fanning) because Alice's father (Ron Eldard), the town loser, was somehow involved in his mother’s death. Joe likes Alice — he likes her a lot! — and that creates tension between the two of them, as well as between Joe and his father (Kyle Chandler), who forbids Joe to see Alice. This iconic conflict between father and child, set against the backdrop of an unknown monstrous intruder, gives this film a satisfying heft.
The story centers on a group of middle-schoolers who have been friends since toddlerhood. Abrams' kids ring true. They're precocious and nerdy in a believable, unassuming way. Their dialogue also rings true, throughout. Charlie (Riley Griffiths) has been the leader of the gang. Like Spielberg, who began making movies with his super 8 camera at the age of 10, Charlie wants to make a movie to enter in a local film festival. He enlists his friends as actors, cinematographers, script consultants, and makeup technicians, and he barks at them throughout rehearsals and filming with the commanding voice of an artistic perfectionist. Charlie is a young Spielberg himself.
One evening Charlie takes his cast "on location" to an isolated train depot to film a scene as the train goes by. He's looking for a dramatic backdrop for his characters' climactic "hill of beans" speech. (This amounts to an homage within an homage, and it works.) But the train suddenly derails — in the most spectacular wreck ever created on film. Ever. The audience in the screening I attended erupted in spontaneous applause as the final piece of wreckage plopped to the ground.
Then, as another homage to Spielberg, Abrams focuses our attention down to a small piece of bloody wreckage, creates a sense of terror as we suspect what might be underneath it, and follows with a gotcha laugh that releases the pent-up tension that the train wreck built so skillfully. Pure genius. Pure Spielberg. In reality, collaborated Abrams.
The rest of the film becomes a typical kids-versus-the world story as these young people try to figure out what the government is trying to hide about the train and its contents. What isn't typical, however, is the quality of the dialogue and the acting of the kids. They are stunningly natural and believable. One of my favorite lines: Charlie says, "We need to develop this film right away. I'm gonna go steal some money from my mom." No hesitation over a moral dilemma. He's a director. He needs money. And he's a kid. He gets it.
With the exception of Elle Fanning (whose career has been active, though overshadowed by that of her older sister, Dakota) these are virtually unknown actors, fresh and new and ready to be molded by their director. I expect to see a lot more of them in the near future. The parents, also, are believable and natural. They are too caught up in their own grownup worlds to recognize what is going on with their children. As a result, their kids are free to roam the town, think for themselves, and learn how to make things happen.
The film has a message, and it's a good one. It argues for overcoming grudges and learning to understand one another. At one point a soldier is lifted by his rifle high into the air. If he holds on, he will die. If he lets go, he will live. Such a simple, subtle message: Let go of the guns. Let go of the grudges. One of Charlie's characters says, "You do have a choice. We all do!" That's an important truth to remember, the truth of individual responsibility and freedom.
Super 8 has it all: great entertainment, great characters, great special effects, great story, and a great message portrayed subtly at the micro and macro level. What more can you ask from a movie?