Super 8 Flirts With Disaster
A big-bang demolition derby, J.J. Abrams' Super 8 seems bound for box-office glory. Opening three weeks before the Fourth of July, this Steven Spielberg-produced, kid-centric 21st-century disaster flick could well hang in at theaters till the 10th anniversary of 9/11—an event that haunts Abrams' surefire blockbuster nearly as much as it did his earlier production Cloverfield, or his major influence, the master's War of the Worlds.
Set in a small rustbelt town during the summer of '79, Super 8 basically refracts—or re-refracts—a familiar '50s sci-fi trope, even as Abrams riffs on the freshly minted sense of suburban wonderment that Spielberg brought to the material in the late '70s and early '80s. Newly motherless Joe Lamb (neophyte Joel Courtney) is making a Super 8 Night of the Living Dead with a bunch of fellow 14-year-olds. In a nice touch, the most obnoxious is the director (Riley Griffiths, another first-timer), while the star, most convincingly, is Elle Fanning, a nice girl from the wrong side of the tracks.
The kids are out late one night, secretly filming by the town railroad, when a pickup truck apparently stalls on the tracks, precipitating a massive flaming-boxcar-hurling apocalyptic derailment of terror. Before long, unseen whatzits are liquidating various characters, stealing car engines, cutting the electrical power and frightening the town's dog population into scampering out for neighboring counties.
The U.S. Army takes control, leaving legitimate, if overly uptight, authority to Joe's father (Kyle Chandler), a local deputy sheriff. "This feels like a Russian invasion," someone insists at a chaotic town meeting—and that's before the army's red-faced commander (Noah Emmerich) orders a mass evacuation. Soldiers are ubiquitous but, as in Cloverfield, Abrams rations out the whatzit appearances in fragmentary bits and pieces.
Drawing on George Romero as well as Spielberg, Super 8 is part travesty, part homage. Abrams has something of Romero's skepticism and cheesiness. He's less cloying than Spielberg and hardly concerned with superficial verisimilitude. Abrams' kid-clutter mise-en-scene is more extreme; his sense of humor is wilder. Suburban heaven becomes a war zone, while an instance of mind-melding rapport between the kids and the whatzit is near-hilarious in its deadpan sentimentality. Through it all, the kids keep working on their project. In a sense, that movie is Super 8 itself.
Named for an obsolete cinema technology, Super 8 is involving enough to create its own reality. The movie begins by evoking a mom crushed to death in a steel-mill mishap, and it never wanders very far from the spectacle of smashed metal and shattered glass. The whole thing feels like one long car crash—not meant as a put-down. Machines exist to pulverize or be pulverized. Without necessarily meaning to be, Super 8 is an American tale, dramatizing the crack-up of the nation's industrial infrastructure.
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