1979 jumps, does a science fiction loop-de-loop
June 16, 2011
We experience movies both at a gut level and on an intellectual plane. When our gut response corresponds with the emotions displayed by the featured characters, we have little need to reprocess the information. That knot in your gut means something’s not right, and for a critic, it’s a prompt to account for the disparity. No such prompt exists here.
“Super 8,” a science-fiction tale dabbling in horror, is a pitch-perfect coming-of-age drama. The story’s horror and science-fiction elements fit the style of mystery that typically drives a J.J. Abrams’s film. Here, the mystery exists merely as the backdrop to the director’s portrait of 12 and 13-year-olds poised to put childhood in the rear view mirror.
The year is 1979. The drama centers around a zombie movie written and directed by Charles (Riley Griffiths) – using a Super 8 camera – with help from his best friend Joe (Joel Courtney), their friend Alice (Elle Fanning), and two other boys. The group is obliged to sneak out during the wee hours of the night, in order to film a pivotal scene on the platform of the town’s small train station. Joe observes their scene coming together nicely, but their efforts come to an abrupt halt when a passing train collides with a pickup truck, causing a stupendous wreck.
In the hours and days that follow, Lillian, a steel town in southern Ohio is overrun, first by a malevolent force that appears to be abducting people and animals, then by the U.S. military as it schemes to evacuate the area. Three days pass before the kids get their film developed and are able to prove to themselves that crucial information is being withheld. Joe’s father, a deputy sheriff played by Kyle Chandler, has suspicions of his own, but lacks the invisibility afforded to kids that enables them to snoop around, unnoticed.
Writer-director Abrams, himself 13 in 1979, does a spiffy job of capturing an era that saw the dawn of the Walkman and the rise of walkie-talkies as consumer-friendly products. The film’s clothes, sets, muscle cars and modest ranch-style homes, are seamlessly and affectionately recreated. The special effects neither add nor detract, though when Abrams finally reveals his monster, we recognize the elements of superior design.
The urgency of pubescent friendships and budding romance may be somewhat idealized, but by refusing to sentimentalize the milestones and millstones inherent to growing up, Abrams delivers characters and a movie that indeed be referred to as super.