On the exploration of family, friendship, filmmaking & nostalgia in JJ Abrams’ underrated Super 8.
“She used to look at me this way, like really look… and I just knew I was there… that I existed.”
Super 8 feels like it’s been forgotten. I still remember all the hype surrounding its enigmatic release back in 2011. What had JJ Abrams & Steven Spielberg cooked up behind all that secrecy? Was it a Cloverfield sequel? It didn’t matter much to me then. When I learned it didn’t focus on a team of 8 colourful superheroes, my attention turned elsewhere. By the time I finally sat down to watch it, I admired it – for reasons I couldn’t fully express back then.
Derided by many for its obvious similarities to Spielberg’s brand of eighties classics, Abrams’ third feature is less of a rip-off of his mentor’s work and more of a loving homage to filmmaking in general. He exquisitely captures the magic & excitement associated with making a movie at that age – adding a splash of nostalgia by setting the film’s events during a time when many of his audience were doing the same. Much like Pixar’s work, it’s a family film designed for all ages. Older viewers will look back on this time period fondly, while younger audiences are able to experience that creative spark vicariously through this cast of intrepid young filmmakers.
In the midst of all this wonder and inspiration, Abrams tells another tale – one far more familiar to modern day audiences: the monster movie. Originally part of a separate script, Abrams fused the two premises together in order to get his ode to filmmaking green-lit. It shows: the sci-fi stuff carries a lot less depth, and the creature’s characterisation often feels rushed and inconsistent. It has its moments of brilliance: the ET-inspired emotional ending, the Jaws-like patience with the monster reveal (the stakes for which are heightened even further by the film’s mystery box marketing) – but it’s very clear which part of this story Abrams really wanted to tell.
Consequently, in spite of all the mystery and terror, I’ve realised now what makes Super 8 so impactful is its exploration of friendship and family. Joe’s friends are a lovable motley crew of dorks, caught in that wonderful phase between childhood innocence and awkward, hormonal teenage angst. Elsewhere, Abrams showcases two parallel tales of fatherhood, juxtaposing Deputy Lamb’s cold, emotionally distant stewardship of Joe with Louis’ unreliable, emotionally charged take on raising Alice. The blossoming romance between the two young leads is sweet – never sickly. And finally, Joe’s grief over the loss of his mother is handled in such a touching, heartfelt way – exemplified by the film’s final scene set to Michael Giacchino’s masterful Letting Go.
I’m 22-years-old and far more cynical about the world than these kids, but there’s something about re-watching this film that made me feel like a child again. Dare I say it, it made me want to go and pick up a camera and shoot something. At the end of the day, I’m pretty sure that’s what great cinema is all about.