Steven Spielberg and George Lucas revolutionized the sci-fi genre in 1977 with their one-two punch of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But somewhere along the line, the films in the genre lost the battle between spectacle and character, and became all about the spectacle. In the 80’s, character still managed to hold its ground. Hollywood was entering a new phase – the era of the blockbusters – but character was still king in this world. E.T., Back to the Future, Aliens and others continued the tradition of character-driven space opera for the masses. But as the genre continued to grow and develop throughout the 90’s and 2000’s, studios began to realize how much money could be made on science fiction films, particular ones with aliens, and their money-grubbing sentiments took over. Battle: Los Angeles. Skyline. The Transformers sequels. And before them, Stargate, Independence Day, Armageddon. Bigger! Faster! More spectacle! More pizzazz! Nowadays, most of our sci-fi films, particularly ones dealing with alien invasions, are works of grand, CGI-ridden spectacle. But somewhere along the way, the characters got lost in the shuffle. Luckily, Spielberg is still around to steer things in the right direction. And now, one if his latest protégés, J.J. Abrams, has taken the reigns.
Super 8 works so well precisely because it’s not about the spectacle. If you had to boil it down, it’s about a group of kids in a small town in late 70’s Ohio bonding, trying to make a super 8 movie while navigating the rough emotional landscape of pre-adolescence. Crushes, personal tragedies and absentee fathers make all of this difficult, but they band together and persevere. It just so happens that an alien life form starts terrorizing the town and gets in the way of their movie. Abrams and co. tried to play up the mystery of the alien in the advertising for the film, but what I really think they intended was to put the emphasis on the kids. This is their story, the film is about them, and anyone expecting to see some hardcore alien-terrorizing-civilians action will be sorely disappointed. However, those who elect to approach the movie with an open mind, harkening back to the sci-fi movies of the 70’s and 80’s that placed character above all, will be in for quite a treat. When the film focuses on the children – which it spends almost the entire runtime doing – it absolutely soars. Abrams really took the time to define each and every character’s unique personalities and traits. We see the movie through their eyes and experience events through their lens, so to speak, so it’s really important to give each one of them clear-cut personalities so we can sympathize with them. The film succeeds admirably at doing so – for the first time in years, we finally get a sci-fi film with real, tangible, relatable, full-fledged and interesting characters we love to get to know and enjoy rooting for.
All of this is thanks to an ensemble of extremely talented kids. The greatest find here is Joel Courtney, playing the immensely likable and relatable main character Joe Lamb. Joel has a young face, but kind: He has this inherent sweetness to him, and his gleeful wide-eyed reaction to the knowledge that his crush Alice will be joining them for the shoot is so adorable and likable. Through his scenes with his father, though, he displays an emotional vulnerability but also an intensity bubbling just under the surface. The film focuses on chronicling Joe’s acclimation to this newfound rage and intensity, as we see him gradually take charge, become more assertive, and become a stronger character in the process. It is precisely this character-driven script that makes Super 8 so rewarding. But of course, there are many other elements to enjoy as well. The rest of the cast is also fantastic. J.J. Abrams gets much respect from me for avoiding creating an all-star Hollywood cast and instead casting small and relatively unknown. Elle Fanning is coming into her own as an actress and between this, Somewhere and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is poised to overshadow her sister’s own Spielberg-affiliated achievements. All of the other kids deliver stellar performances, but the main standout besides Joel and Elle is Riley Griffiths who plays Charles, the passionate, over-achieving, somewhat bossy director of the film-within-a-film. Honestly, if any filmmakers can’t see even an ounce of themselves in the characters of Charles… I don’t know what kind of filmmakers they are. Rounding out the cast are spectacular performances from the adults, including the well-established Noah Emmerich as the villainous head of the Air Force and also Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler as Joe’s father, Jackson. It’s also fun to see established character actors like Bruce Greenwood and Dale Dickey pop up, even if it’s only for brief roles.
But it’s not just the story that harkens back to the great sci-fi adventures of the 70’s and early 80’s. Brilliant visualist Larry Fong lends Super 8 that distinct 1970’s look and feel, complete with naturalistic lighting, dynamic camera moves, anamorphic lenses and beautiful streaking lens flares. This film is something of a visual departure for Fong – he is the man responsible for the unique and extremely artistic visual looks of 300 and Watchmen. But here, he scales it back a bit; delivering a beautiful, dynamic visual style that is naturalistic and serves the film’s nostalgic purposes well. Attention to detail in the production and costume design further lend the film an air of nostalgic authenticity. Finally, Michael Giaccino’s delicate, somber, emotional score harkens back to the classic, saccharine scores of none other than the master himself, John Williams. Giaccino is one of my favorite composers working today and it was an absolute treat to see him working in such familiar ground, but lending his own unique touch to the musical sound.
In general, that seems to be the main theme with this film: familiar, but different. Spielberg’s touch and influence is felt in practically every scene and flourish in the film, from the sci-fi story to the plot told from a child’s point-of-view to the focus on story, character and emotion amidst a fantastical, sci-fi setting to not fully revealing the monster until the third act. But despite the fact that the film works as a nostalgic love letter to the great sci-fi films of yore, it also still manages to feel vital, new, and extremely relevant. This is Spielberg seen uniquely through J.J. Abrams’ own very distinct lens, and it is the combination of both of these directors’ instincts, sentiments and styles that makes Super 8 the best film of the summer, and the must-see film of the season.