Do you miss the days when technology was a lot simpler? Occasionally I do. For instance, when one of three USB ports on my laptop and my USB hub both go nuts and thus make it impossible for me to have more than two devices plugged in at a time. I’m used to having four to six different devices plugged in all at once so a mere two is quite restrictive. (Mouse and graphic tablet… what about my scanner? Or my external hard drive?)
Much annoyed with my laptop, I went off to see Super 8. And for two hours, I managed to forget about the USB issues.
Super 8 tells the story of a group of kids who witness a train crash of epic proportions while trying to shoot a scene for their zombie movie (with a Super 8 camera, hence the movie’s title) at a train station. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends manage to somehow avoid getting more than dirt- and smoke-stains on their clothes and maybe a few bruises. The high school science teacher, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), who causes the crash by driving his truck onto the rails regains consciousness and warns them away with an ominous, “They will kill you. Do not speak of this or else you – and your parents – will die.” The kids flee (remembering, of course, to grab the precious Super 8 camera and the cartridge) and it gradually becomes apparent that something is not right in the town of Lillian. Dogs go missing – there’s a really good shot where Joe puts up a notice for his missing dog, Lucy, and the camera pulls back to reveal that the notice board is full of missing dog posters – and so do car parts, metal objects, power lines, and a few people.
The military, whose train it was that crashed, descend upon the town and behaves in an altogether suspicious manner, refusing to answer questions posed by deputy sheriff, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler). The deputy sheriff has his hands full with his boss among the missing, the townspeople demanding answers (and blaming the Russians), and his – and his son’s – grief at losing his wife in a factory accident.
When the film from that night is developed, Joe and Charles (Riley Griffiths), the bossy director of the zombie movie, realise that something escaped from the train wreck. Suddenly there is a wildfire just outside Lillian; a fire started by the military as an excuse to evacuate all the town residents so they can hunt down the mysterious Something that no one (apart from Joe and his friends) is aware of. Joe tries to find his father to tell him about the creature in their footage, but instead finds Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard), the father of Alice (Elle Fanning) who is their zombie movie’s leading lady and (predictably) the romantic interest of both Joe and Charles. Louis tells him that It – the dreaded Something – took Alice.
I probably don’t need to continue this synopsis. Story-wise, Super 8 is as formulaic as they come. However, it holds the audience’s attention well with its quick pacing (it’s a little under two hours long), amusing dialogue and the element of suspense, which Abrams deploys rather well by not showing the alien until halfway through the movie – and even then it’s only glimpses that we get. There’s no full view of the alien until the last ten minutes or so.
The narrative generally hangs together well and the details of the script and the production design really work to set the time and feel of the film. The mention of the Three Mile Island incident clearly puts the story in 1979, but even without that there is the very distinct 1970s impression – from the colours of and the patterns on the clothes that were very much in the style of that decade, to Walkmans being new technology, to a hint of animosity towards Russia that indicates the Cold War era, to the very existence of the Super 8 camera.
Industrial Light and Magic (ILM, they of Star Wars and Transformers) handled the visual effects for Super 8 and perhaps director J.J. Abrams got a little carried away with the train wreck sequence. It is an impressive piece of visual and special effects work, no doubt. But in hindsight it feels a little out of keeping with the rest of the film. Rather too extreme and too liberal with exploding train parts – almost as though they’d roped in Michael Bay to guest direct that bit. To paraphrase Terry’s thoughts on that: “I know ILM is damn good, but tone it down a little, will you?”
The alien creature, with its spider-like tendencies and appearance, reminds me somewhat of Shelob in Lord of the Rings. When the scene of its victims hanging upside down from the ceiling, some of whom were wrapped in what looked like white webbing, Shelob was all I could think of. It also bears resemblance to some other alien creature from another film – I’m just not sure what. In a clear attempt at eliciting audience empathy and sympathy for it, there was a shot of the alien blinking at Joe while it considered his words. If a strange creature has eyelids and blinks, the audience is more likely to feel for it because that makes it seem more human, more relatable. If it does not blink, it either comes off as robotic or as threatening (snakes and sharks, for instance, do not blink).
I found the sound design unusually striking, but the Michael Giacchino score did not make much of an impression.
The young actors were pretty fantastic. Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning played their characters well and had a sort of sweet chemistry together – though I do feel like Elle Fanning has a rather spooky look about her at times. Riley Griffiths, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills and Ryan Lee did excellently as Joe’s friends. Ryan Lee in particular did a good job of playing the pyromanic friend. (One wonders if Michael Bay was that sort of kid – always wanting to blow things up…)
One thing I liked about the character of Joe Lamb was his artistic streak. He’s the make-up artist for Charles’s little zombie movie and the kid also assembles model characters and model trains and paints them. When telling Alice about his model paints, he calls one “Euro grey” and babbles about how there are like 16 different shades of the paint or something before he stops, embarrassed. In that moment, I felt such an affinity for the character. haha
All in all, Super 8 was a generally fun ride with a strong feeling of nostalgia and some well-employed suspense in the first half. It isn’t anything really new, but perhaps it’s not trying to be. As a tribute to the nostalgia of youth and early Spielberg movies it works very well.
A note about the subtitles: Gosh, they were funny. “You pussy!” became “Kau pondan!” Everyone in the cinema started laughing the first time that came up. (Although I guess it’s not exactly a bad translation, if you think about it…) And when one of the boys said, “He blew us off – let’s go” that was mistranslated as “Dia pergi tandas” or something to the effect of “he had to pee”, which was just as funny because that was completely wrong. lol