Super 8
Friday, 10 June 2011

J J Abrams’s Super 8 is a pleasant summer movie. It’s pleasant largely because its two young stars, Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney, are not only engaging but engaging in the same way as two older actors, Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman. Whether there’s a facial resemblance I won’t claim, but Ms Fanning has Ms Kidnman’s ability to make passionate outburst look like the natural consequence of steely reserve, while Mr Courtney has Mr Bateman’s modest but genially attentive charm. The sense of kids playing at being movie stars is of course enhanced by the fact that their characters are making a movie — a zombie movie shot in Super 8 film (Mr Abrams’s film is set in 1979). You can watch Super 8, in fact, as a movie about moviemaking, ignore the Spielbergian science fiction story altogether, and have a perfectly good time. I’ll let you do the unpacking. Let’s just say that watching Charles, an enthusiastic, power-mad fifteen year-old would-be auteur (Riley Griffiths), run around exclaiming an urgent need for and ecstatic appreciation of “Production Values!” is going to be more of a treat for viewers who have actually considered  the movies than it’s going to be for those who haven’t. (The more I think about this kid’s chutzpah, the more I’m put in mind of Charles Laughton.)

Mr Abrams is to be congratulated for cloaking his movie in the Aura of Spielberg without suffocating it. It may be that he is simply the better director of actors. The pressboard clichés of Steven Spielberg’s Mittelamerika are all on display. We have a slightly dumpy and sad Ohio manufacturing town that doesn’t know what’s going to hit it — the visitor from outer space will be a benign memory once the offshoring and shuttering starts. We have perfectly nice, normal Americans, complete with their domesticated hostilities about patriarchy and propriety. We have a hero whose mother died in a factory accident the winter before the story gets going. We have a heroine whose mother abandoned her to the care of her shiftless, long-haired father (Ron Eldard, made up to resemble, very spookily, Gérard Depardieu — more references!). We have the overweight Charles, one of ten or fifteen children in a happily chaotic home overseen by a can-do mom (Jessica Tuck). The hero lives with his deputy sheriff stepfather (Kyle Chandler) in the nicer part of town, which wouldn’t be the nicer part of any village in Westchester, while the heroine lives in a more rackety pile that’s reminiscent of New England mill towns. In the climax, the town is destroyed —so maybe its citizens won’t suffer the onslaught of globalization, after all. The important thing is that the hero and the sheriff share a warmly heartfelt embrace at the finish. If the production values of Super 8 were a font, we would call it Spielberg Vernacular Bold.

The town is destroyed by special forces of I forget which branch of the armed services; Air Force probably. It would be misleading to say that Super 8 resounds with echoes of Sixties-era countercultural loathing for the military, because the sounds that you hear are much, much  louder than echoes. The special forces, headed by a tall silent type with bad skin played by Noah Emmerich, are the film’s bad guys. They will stop at nothing to prevent a brachyurous alien of nightmarish allure but superhuman intelligence from repairing its space ship and, like ET, going home. It is not its fault that the weaponry aimed in its direction misfires and destroys the town; it is only acting in self-defense. Mr Abrams insures that the creature’s final departure is a glittering, almost hypnotizing bit of Las Vegas glitz, leaving behind a wreckage of microwave ovens, console television sets, and too-large automobiles that no sane person would want anyway. If the creature does have an unfortunate habit of sustaining itself on a diet of humans, that’s just a gentle parallel of the kids’ zombie movie — which is shown in its entirety during the final credits, so sit still after the happy ending.

Super 8 may unfold in a thoroughly predictable manner, but then so does Midnight in Paris; in both cases, the unfolding is expert. As a Manhattanite, I have a thoroughly predictable preference for Woody Allen’s Gotham Comic Sans, but I had a good time at Super 8, and if you have ever thought about why you like going to the movies, you will, too.