J.J. Abrams may just be the next Spielberg. The young filmmaker doesn’t just possess a knack for mish-mashing genres, but he has a sure gift for creating works that are incredibly entertaining yet meaningful with moral and spiritual implications. His Spielberg-ian impulses are fully realized in Super 8. If it weren't stamped with Abrams’ name as the writer and director, the sci-fi film could easily be mistaken for an early work of Spielberg. Like so many Amblin classics [Editor's note: check out our rundown of Amblin films], it captivates us with both a warm sensibility and a magical coming-of-age story about friendship, forgiveness and, essentially, faith.
Set in 1979 Ohio, the film centers on a teen named Joe Lamb, played by a reserved Joel Courtney. Much like Elliot from E.T., Joe is dreamy and a bit withdrawn. He’s smart, courageous but troubled. In the opening scene, we witness the aftermath of a terrible death. Joe’s beloved mother died in an accident at the local mill. This leaves him and his father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights in a perfectly fitting role), greatly distressed. Deputy Lamb blames the death on one of his wife’s coworkers and harbors bitterness, while Joe feels lost with no one to turn to, and their relationship grows distant because of it.
But all this changes three months later when Joe and his friends sneak out one night to film a zombie movie with a Super 8mm camera. Amid shooting at a rural train station, the young teenagers witness a catastrophic train wreck. The event makes for a visually stunning scene that brings action into the movie at any early point. With grand explosions and trouncing sounds, the visual effects are better even the finest work of Michael Bay, feeling so purposeful and significant to the actual story.
The supernatural experience then sets in motion a sequence of strange events, including military intervention and the disappearance of pets, people and all kinds of electric appliances. Despite endangering their lives, the kids can’t help but try to figure out what’s going on. They want to unlock the mystery. They’ve witnessed something completely unreal, and it’s totally changed them.
As the situation worsens, Joe finally realizes there’s something behind the mess, some sort of alien creature. When this creature snatches Alice (convincingly portrayed by Elle Fanning), a sweet, compassionate young blonde whom he’s recently opened up to and started falling for, Joe goes on a mission to save her. With help from his buddies, including the hilarious Charles, a Chunk-like character, he eventually finds himself in a standoff with the alien. This leads to an incredible, redemptive finale that invokes both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.
This hopeful conclusion, in the spirit of Spielberg, comes as straightforward as could be with the potential to be incredibly cheesy and overly sentimental. But because Abrams envelopes us with so much feeling and sympathy for the humanistic characters, it doesn’t feel clunky at all. It feels completely right. In fact, the happy ending actually adds to the film’s nostalgia. In a post-9/11 culture enthralled by dysfunction and cynicism, such optimism seems like a thing of the past, reminding us of a time when, despite pain and suffering, characters overcame their problems and differences for something better—a time with hope and life.
Of course, the most significant part of this nostalgia has to be the actual catalyst through which the characters experience redemption. Following in the footsteps of Spielberg and continuing in themes seen in Lost, Abrams brings back something missing from film today and reconciles the relationship between art and faith, as well as morality. He uses the Spielberg-ian element of an alien visitor to intercede for Joe and Deputy Lamb. The father and son don’t fix their own problems. They don’t save themselves. It takes something supernatural and miraculous to rescue and redeem them. When speaking of this spiritual experience, a renewed Joe boldly proclaims, “I believe,” reiterating the importance of faith in a higher power or being.
By bringing this aspect into a mainstream blockbuster with the same heart and vision of a Spielberg picture, Abrams creates a film that both totally entertains and inspires. Brought together with a youthful tone, clever humor and some entrancing visual effects, Super 8 undoubtedly makes for the perfect summer movie.