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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Super 8

  Super 8 (Four Stars)

U.S.: J. J. Abrams, 2011

Remember what it was like when you were 12? 14? Twelve, wishing you were fourteen? Remember how magical the world was then? And how magical the movies were: the ones that you really loved and remembered and were really affected by?

For me, that was 1958 and 1959: Vertigo, Touch of Evil, Some Like It Hot, Ben-Hur, North by Northwest, Rio Bravo, Anatomy of a Murder, The Bridge Over the River Kwai (from 1957, the year before). And all the movies I saw on TV then for the first time when I was 12, like Citizen Kane.

For Steven Spielberg, the producer of Super 8, who’s near my age, the movies he loved may have been some of the very same pictures. For J. J. Abrams, Spielberg’s collaborator and Super 8’s writer-director, they were maybe the movies of the late 70s –which could have included Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (by Spielberg), The Last Waltz, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.

Someday, more than a few adults will probably look back fondly on Super 8. They’ll have reason — despite the fact that all too many of the new movies are way too slanted, too calculated for audiences primarily of kids and teenagers and young adults. (When I was 12, by contrast, I wanted to see the movies intended primarily for adults. And, thanks to my mother, I did.)

Most of the new movies try to make their audiences identify with their kid protagonists, to feel with them, dream with them. Fat chance, most of them. But Super 8, the best of its kind this season, did make me feel, for a while, as if I were a kid again, as if I were 12 again — and I’m sure that’s just the effect that Abrams and Spielberg wanted.

The two build a bridge in their movie between childlike wonder and delight and adult savviness, darkness and sophistication — as if they‘d done a super-Stephen King tale (Stand By Me, multiplied by The Shining), or started with The Wizard of Oz and veered off into Psycho. They’ve made something not always wholly original. (In fact, it’s a movie in which we can see the influences from other movies pronto.) But it’s often unusual and exciting and, at times, exhilarating.

I had enormous fun at Super 8. It’s a great personal, heartfelt movie disguised as a kid-picture blockbuster, and it’s also the best of this year’s big “event” shows so far. Going to Super 8 should entertain you, even perhaps if you never go to movies like this and feel a little hostile toward the whole idea of big Hollywood blockbusters geared for young audiences. In a way though, it’s the kind of movie that Hollywood was born to make, the kind that (as Robin Wood once said of Rio Bravo) justifies the whole existence of Hollywood.

It hooked me fast: Super 8’s mass-audience pop-movie tale of six kids shooting their own Super 8 zombie movie, who then become involved in a real-life horror-story of monster alien attacks and military conspiracies erupting all around them. You can sense what this story means to both Abrams and Spielberg, two prodigies who shot amateur movies like the one in Super 8 when they were kids themselves. The film almost certainly grows out of their own youthful dreams and memories, but Super 8 also gives you the pleasure of watching two ace big studio professionals, both at the top of their game, manipulating the conventions and myths (and the stereotypes and clichés) of big-budget moviemaking, yet doing it in ways that stir their own feelings, as well as involving and engrossing the audience.

It’s a movie about making art (or entertainment, or schlock imitations of it) and of how art (and schlock) may be reflected in the world around you. Abrams sets the movie is a working class Ohio steel town. (He calls it Lillian, but it’s shot in Wierton, West Virginia, the location for Michael Cimino’s 1978 Oscar-winner The Deer Hunter.) And he gives all the kids plenty of personality and, some of them, a lot of back-story.

The movie begins darkly, with a family tragedy. But then it moves quickly into a semi-humorous, semi-satiric, amusingly realistic depiction of Joe’s and his buddies’ attempt to make their own version of a zombie horror movie, called “The Case,“ and heavily influenced by, and cheesily imitative of, George Romero’s legendary low-budget wonder, Night of the Living Dead

Except for their slightly older leading lady, all of The Case’s boy cast and crew seem to be classmates, about 12 (that magical age). The writer-director, Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths), is a pudgy little egomaniac, who comes from a big, bustling, relatively prosperous-looking family, and, like Cecil B. DeMille (Ayn Rand’s early employer and one of the role models for her egocentric heroes), he’s an imperious-acting, full-of-himself character who likes to boss everybody around.

But Charles isn’t the center of Super 8. That spot belongs to Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), the movie‘s makeup man and designer — crucial jobs in a zombie movie. The son of a local cop, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler of “Friday Night Lights“). Joe is a sensitive, loyal kid, dedicated to the project and to his friendship with Charles, though Charles unfortunately is a bit of a manipulator (albeit in a relatively harmless juvenile sort of way). The tragedy: Joe also recently lost his mother in a steel mill accident.

Super 8’s (and The Case’s) leading lady, and a terrific one — for both acting and looks — is Alice Dainard (played by Elle Fanning, costar of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, and younger sister of Dakota). She’s both the middle school goddess of all the five guys, and the daughter of a guilt-ravaged local drunk, Louis (Ron Eldard), who was partly responsible for Joe‘s mother‘s death. That doesn’t really faze Joe. He adores her, just as the others do. But it creates real problems with both Louis and Jackson, neither of whom wants their kids together.

The rest of the cast and crew, a highly colorful bunch, is composed of special effects guy Cary (Ryan Lee), a delightful little firebug; Martin (Gabriel Basso) and The Case‘s slightly stiff male star, Preston (Zach Mills).

You can see right away how much effort Abrams put into imagining these kids, who would normally be played in the usual Hollywood movie by just five good-looking or funny boy actors thrown together, with a good-looking girl actress to fuel some fantasies. So richly human is the opening here though, that Abrams could have had a very good little movie –maybe a classic — if he‘d just kept building on his opening, imagining the making of that zombie movie, and showed the way it’s impacted and affected by the kid’s lives, families and relationships.

SPOILER ALERT (In fact, purists might want to skip the whole rest of the review. You have my blessings.)

Instead — much as Spielberg did in E.T., one of Super 8’s obvious models — Abrams keeps the emotional and human drama in the foreground, but also adds a full-throttle action/science fiction story in the background, about a dangerous alien who escapes from somewhat frightening Air Force captors, and throws the town of Lillian into chaos.


Abrams collides the two stories — literally — in the movie’s first great sequence: when the six are shooting a scene between Alice and Preston late at night at a small train station on the outskirts of town, and we and all the boys see what a great actress Alice (and Elle) really is. Suddenly they all find themselves witness to a spectacular train wreck (modeled, both Abrams and Spielberg say, on the wreck in DeMille‘s The Greatest Show on Earth). It’s a wild catastrophe, shot in a frenzy of quick edits, hurled cars and flaming wreckage, and the opportunistic Charles insists on shooting the crash and trying to integrate it later into the movie, ordering Alice and Preston to rush into their lines, even as the train plows into a pickup truck parked on the tracks and boxcars begin flying and exploding every which way. (And as something very dangerous-looking begins clambering over and around the smoking mess.) To their astonishment, the kids find that the driver of the truck, and the architect of the crash, was their school science teacher, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman) who, grievously injured, pulls a gun and warns them away.

Something mysterious is going on, and eventually the area is warming with determined looking U. S. Air Force types, led by the very mean-looking, granite-faced Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), who becomes the kid‘s nemesis for the rest of the movie. You probably know by now what was on the train, but in case you don‘t ….


…. That mysterious and now escaped passenger was an alien that the Air Force has had in captivity since 1958, the year The Blob was released. Now it’s on the loose, turning this movie into a fascinating fusion of all three of Spielberg’s extra-terrestrial visitor movies, the seraphic “good will” fable E. T., the idealistic epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the ultra-paranoid horror show War of the Worlds (the Dakota Fanning version).

It’s always seemed a little odd to me that those three Spielberg movies above could emerge from one moviemaker’s vision — rather like the oft-cited seeming inconsistency of Lewis Milestone making Halls of Montezuma and Pork Chop Hill after directing All Quiet on the Western Front. But, in Super 8, the ceaselessly inventive Abrams has jammed all three, comfortably if sometimes explosively, into one movie.



Shot with all the terror, kinetic fury and sleight-of-hand of the Abrams-produced now-you-see-it-mostly-you-don’t alien invasion movie, Cloverfield (which was directed by Abrams’ longtime moviemaking buddy, Matt Reeves), the action scenes in Super 8 all but blast you out of your seat. And because Abrams has spent so much time drawing the characters here, the action and horror connect with us more. Super 8, in fact, would still be a good movie, if all of its action scenes were scrapped and replaced by more realistic, less violent ones. But it wouldn’t be very good at all without the character stuff.

What makes this show work so well is the heavy personal investment both Abrams and Spielberg have in the foreground story of the kids and their amateur Super 8 moviemaking, as well as the high imagination and canny professionalism they bring to the off-the-wall monster movie stuff that surrounds the kids.

Super 8 is also hot on period detail: from the spins we hear of The Knack’s “My Sharona” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” to the sight and sound of Walter Cronkite reporting on the CBS Nightly News about Three Mile Island. (A sad note: Cronkite, whose very name means “TV news anchorman” in Swedish, probably couldn’t get an anchor job in today’s glam-addled, sometimes vicious TV news world.) And the very large, very deep cast here are excellent on every level, from the moviemaking children to nasty Colonel Nelec, a “Keys“ with jaws.

The notion of Super 8 — that these young artists are trying to make a horror movie (which is a cheap imitation) and wind up being in one (an expensive imitation) — may seem superficial. But Abrams and Spielberg, among many other things, are commenting on the ways art draws from life, and from art (and schlock), and vice versa — in a story that, like many of the Hollywood classics, draws on both the movies that went before it, and the reality around them and us.

At the end, alongside the credits, the moviemakers do something inspired. Abrams and Spielberg show us parts of the “final version” of chubby auteur Charles Kaznyk’s “Livig Dead” knock-off — some of which is composed of footage we saw being made during the course of Super 8, and all of which was actually shot by the “Case“ cast and crew themselves. I hate to pile on Woody Allen, an undeserved punching bag after Husbands and Wives, but this is what he should have done at the end of Hollywood Ending.

Liste. Seriously. Even if you never stick in your seat for all the credits after a show, you should not walk out of Super 8 until you see all of this ultimate little movie-within-a-movie. As Maurice Williams said: Stay (Just a Little Bit Longer). What you’ll see is the perfect end-title sequence for Super 8, a blockbuster for the cognoscenti.

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One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: Super 8”

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon