It seems like ages since we have seen family movies and classic scifi on the big screen in hollywood. But recently that is exactly what has been happening and this Thanksgiving weekend I watched Super 8. Steven Spielberg’s touch is obvious in this movie and thats okay, because he has reached back to the emotional and feelings that ET brought all of us when we were younger. The addition of JJ Abrams was a welcome addition that brought with it a new age touch of action and mystery that combined with the classic Spielberg touches lead to one of my favorite movies in a long time.
How kids handle pain and loss
The story seems simple on its surface: Six friends making a zombie film accidentally film a train wreck only to discover that something they couldnt imagine escaped from it. Now they must discover what it was and more importantly what it wants. The story starts out following the death of Joe Lamb’s mother at the mill. Outside in the cold, Joe sits on the swing with a straight face and little emotion, while inside his friends, intrigued with the gory details, talk about what happen. In the first 10 mins of the movie we see the brilliance of the writing that both Spielberg and Abrams bring to the table. First we all make the assumption that if we lost our parent at a young age, we should watch them on screen crying the entire time, but we dont work that way. We all grieve differently and the grief we hide is the most destructive and what we would expect from someone like Joe. On the flip side, we also expect kids to be morbidly curious about death and we find his friends are, and they arnt afraid to talk about it.
Another area of the movie that I found honest and true to life was the behavior and way the kids communicated both with their parents and to each other in the movie. Spielberg and Abrams manage to capture that kids, especially teens don’t see eye to eye with their parents and in most cases arn’t even on the same planet, as we see with Joe and his father. After Joe’s mom dies, his father tries sending him away and just doesn’t communicate well with his son. This comes to a head when for the first time, Joe raises his voice to his father in tears, telling him that they arnt “clear” and never have been and he likes Alice and that she is kind to him. Misunderstood kids and their parents is a common theme in many movies and shows. However here is where Spielberg shines above the rest. As they say in science when talking about explaining things that are too complex to understand, is that sometimes the simplest explanation is the best one. In Joes case, the simple thing explanation is that Joe is alone, hurt, and his father doesnt pay attention to him. All he has is his friends and he wont let his father keep him away from that. Such a simple and some say childish idea, but that in an of itself is a very emotional feeling and exports many of us back to our childhoods thinking of those moments where we were in Joes shoes. Upset and alone, needing their friends because their parent or parents didnt listen. The lead up throughout the movie to this point is smooth and perfect.
Alice and Joe have a moment in the movie where when sitting in his room, a projector comes on showing family videos of Joe and his mom. Alice begins to cry as she explains to Joe the one thing nobody would ever tell him about the day his mother died. Alice’s dad was supposed to work that shift that day, but he was drunk and Joe’s mom took his shift for him. Alice tells how her father wishes it had been him that day and not her and she wishes sometimes too. Joe doesnt get angry, doesnt run away, but simply tells her not to think that way, thats her father. At this moment we see again how Spielberg and Abrams have shown us a real picture of how kids react and not an over dramatic hollywood reaction.
The thrill of mystery and conspiracy
Beyond the Spielberg style emotional depth and profiling of adolescence and how a young boy deals with family and friends during loss, Spielberg and Abrams manage to give us suspense, mystery and conspiracy about what was really in that train. Joe and his friends try to hide from the fact that they witnessed the wreck when the air force steps in to deal with the clean up. Joe, not having much time with dad, builds model trains and knows that wasnt a standard train, but a military one and he wonders what could be in the cargo. The 6 friends fight back against the military and seek anything they can find on what is happening. The action scene we watch with the train and the scene in town with the tanks and mortars going off is very Abrams to me and is a great addition to the movie and the story, adding a real sense of danger and horror in all the right places. The movie also doesnt shy away from having the military arrest kids, which some other movies would try to skate past.
One of the concepts used in Super 8 which I talked about above was a less is more approach to certain parts of the story. In this area, regarding the alien, i think it was the absolute best choice. I remember watching, and sitting on the edge of my seat going: “what is that, wait i think i can see it, no i cant, wait if i look closer, HOLY COW!” Who else could pull that off then Abrams and Spielberg? At the end we get a somewhat ET moment but on a different level between Joe and the alien. What was so great about this moment was how it tied in the mystery to the emotion. As Joe put it “I know bad things happen, Bad things happen but you can still live.”. Although we can see the terrified look in Joes face as the alien picks him up, he understands what the alien is feeling. The alien was abused by the military, forced to remain locked up and not allowed to go home. Joe lost his mother and at every turn was told who he can or cannot hang out with and was otherwise abandoned. We watch the alien get his ship back and fly away, as Joe and the others watch on.
Up and Comers to keep an eye on
This movie had many familiar faces but one in particular is going to be a face we will be seeing a lot more of in the near future. Joel Courtney, who plays Joe Lamb, lands his first acting role in Super 8. This movie was Joels first audition and first role as an actor and was called back twice in the same day to read more lines. I must say the casting director made an excellent choice. Many times we find hollywood bringing in actors who are in their 20’s to play characters in their teens because most teens dont have the level of talent or the maturity to pull of the role at hand. Joel had both the skills and the maturity to pull this off. He brought with him what felt like a seasoned actors skill set to the screen and displayed a great deal of emotion and awe that we would expect from someone in their mid twenties. He has already signed on to several more roles in different films and I think we will be seeing a lot more of Joel in the very near future.
Overall Spielberg and Abrams picked an excellent cast of kids to play in this film, all of them bringing great roles and personalities and each director brought in their own little touch of self into this film. For anyone who has followed Spielberg at all, you know his love of dogs, and Super 8 is no exception. A neat fact is that in almost all of Spielberg’s TV shows and films, there is a golden lab, why? Not really sure, but what story isnt complete without a boy and his dog?