J.J. Abrams' self-appointed blockbuster Super 8 concerns a boy who loses his mother, a steelworker, when she is accidentally crushed by a steel beam. Film-savvy viewers will feel they've been deliberately crushed by a steel beam after watching Super 8, a bit of Spielbergian nostalgia porn that will allow audiences to get their rocks off but leave them feeling guilty and embarrassed. In other words, it's the ideal movie for a fanboy itching to reclaim lost youth and to snark about something, in that order. Wait—is that me? See, I told you it was embarrassing.
The motherless boy is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney, nicely understated), a Lillian, Ohio lad whose circle of friends—led by alpha wolf Charles (Riley Griffiths)—busies themselves making a summer movie. This being 1979, their movie—about a zombie cover-up—is being filmed on a Super 8 film camera, with the intention of entering a Super 8 film festival (hey, just like J.J. Abrams did with Cloverfield director Matt Reeves, in their early teens!). Charles decides they need a girl in the picture, so he recruits the luminous Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), just in time for a midnight film shoot out by the train station. Wouldn't you know it? The witching hour is just about the time a U.S. Air Force train containing God knows what derails right in front of them, sending the tender teens running and praying for their lives. What follows is, essentially War of the Worlds, just literally made touchy-feely (in fact, Touchy-Feely would've been a better title).
The scenes of suburban squalor straight-facedly parody E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and a sweet, sensitive youth romance predictably emerges between Joe and Alice, who bond—like Romeo and Juliet—in spite of their parents' rage. Joe's sheriff's deputy father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) and Alice's hard-drinking father Louis (Ron Eldard) are just busy enough with work and the bottle to be bothersome but mostly absent to the kids, the better for the youngsters to bond with each other. Misunderstanding his artsy son, Jackson wants to send Joe to the baseball camp that formed dear old Dad, but apart from having no interest in baseball, Joe doesn't want to leave or let down his friends. Dad's insistence that sending Joe away for the summer is "what we both need" stings, and there's also the matter of his fresh grief since the maternal loss four months earlier (the film's first line thuds usefully in front of us: "I'm so worried for that boy").
Like Abrams and most Americans born after 1960, my formative moviegoing experiences included the output of Steven Spielberg, the most skilled manipulator of mass audiences since Hitchcock. Abrams' naked pastiche of Spielberg's late-'70s, early-'80s output is a second-generation copy that doesn't have His Master's Voice (though it does have Michael Giacchino's skillful second-hand Williams score). Like a conjurer who can technically copy his hero's trick but fails to find the "magic," Abrams objectively understands and gathers many of the narrative elements that make Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. memorable, but puts his heart more into the references to Dick Smith's Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-Up Handbook than into telling a story that, like those of Spielberg, feel real. Are Super 8's synthetic leanings a matter of Abrams loving movies more than people? Perhaps Spielberg succeeded as well as he did by battling himself to a draw on that score.
Abrams has been name-checking John Carpenter alongside Spielberg, but scary creature aside, Super 8 slavishly apes the latter, also Abrams' hands-on executive producer here. Abrams gets the simple appeal of having kids star in an adventure that's not straight-to-video and carry their dramatic weight—a fair amount of the dewy-eyed kid drama and goofy kid comedy works nicely (it helps that Fanning is so clearly a star about to happen). Though Abrams' inccessant lens flares have become a joke, Super 8 has terrific production design and photography, and, yes, the train-crash sequence is, indeed something to see ("Production value!" as Charles enthuses).
But let's be honest: the b.s. sci-fi plot is so much empty machinery, which becomes steadily more apparent as the film wends its way toward a heavy-metal climax that's narratively and emotionally questionable. It's why Super 8 is fast-paced to a fault: like his forebears, Abrams hopes we won't notice or, more likely, won't care that we've been had. Maybe that's good enough for real kids, who are entitled to a summertime roller-coaster that's not 100% soulless (heck, it's even got some junior catharsis), but as for the grown-up kids, there are better ways to indulge nostalgia.
[The D-BOX Motion Experience: At the invitation of the Camera 7 Pruneyard theater in Campbell, California, I took in a second screening of Super 8, this time in D-BOX. For the uninitiated, D-BOX is a "Motion Code" that syncs theater seats (and home theater seats for those who invest in them) to the screen action, through a specially programmed track. The portion of the seat below your rump has motion actuators that make the seat a mini-gimbal. So the seat can gently rock the viewer, jolt the viewer in any direction, or vibrate, with the goal of enhancing the experience of the movie. The closest analog to D-BOX might be the Disney Parks attraction Star Tours, a Star Wars flight simulator that straps in riders and jolts them around as they look "through" a spaceship viewscreen that is, of course, a cunningly produced film. To date, thirty movies have gotten the D-BOX treatment, including Inception; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1; Fast and Furious and Fast Five.
So is it worth it? Your mileage may vary. At the Camera 7, D-BOX will cost you an additional $8 on a $10 prime-time, adult ticket, and it more than doubles the price of a matinee ticket, from $7 to $15. Unquestionably, D-BOX is a novelty, and one that some enthusiastically swear by. That it turns a movie—typically a blockbuster-style movie—into something close to an amusement park thrill ride has its appeal. The dumber the movie and the guiltier the pleasure, the more D-BOX is likely to add to the experience rather than detract from it. Though the D-BOX programmers' custom work can be artful, it also seems an inherent intrusion—more so than 3D—on the traditional filmmaking tools of sight and sound and, worse, on the filmmaker's overall vision of the film. It's a little like trying to read with someone looking over your shoulder: a distraction. Actually, it's a little like trying to read Treasure Island with someone rocking your seat and spritzing water in your face (more like being on a ship, yes, but I'm trying to concentrate here!).
My specific experience with Super 8 began with my seat gently rumbling as Louis Dainard's car pulled up to the Lamb house. This would prove to be a consistent trick, whether we're "in" the car (in which case the effect is more pronounced) or outside of it. The D-BOX kicked in big time for the big train derailment sequence, with the seat seeming to thump up and down or jolting me left or right (users have an intensity control with three settings, but everyone at the screening was going for the gusto with the top setting). Any opportunity for a little goose, including shots fired from a cap gun, was exploited, but the most muscular motion effects went along with the big-scale vehicular action and monster attacks. One of the more memorable effects was the subtle tipping forward of the seat as Joe and Cary (Ryan Lee) look down into an abyss.
The latter sort of enhancement can actually function much like the best 3D, closing the gap between the audience and the story of the film. D-BOX works best when it gives viewers the experience of the character, heightening identification (though, if not consistently applied to the protagonist or at least a single character, this also raises questions of the proper use of POV). D-BOX detracts from the film when the motion does anything other than put the viewer into a character's shoes. During the train derailment, some of the thumps and jolts could be those of someone on the ground, but I also distinctly remember being tugged and tilted to the right just as a train car in the center of the screen leapt and tumbled to the right: soooo...am I the train car? This was the general approach to the film's biggest action scene, rather than focusing on simulating the movement of and environmental impact on the characters.
Another problem with D-BOX is my sense of the purity of the visual experience. Some viewers like to sit much closer to the screen than I do, in order to be enveloped by the film: they're the target audience for D-BOX. I want to sit pretty close to center of the house with the screen at eye level, so I can take in the composition of the film frame. Camera 7 Pruneyard's D-BOX seats are at eye level to the screen, in the middle of the house, but when D-BOX shakes you, your focus and ability to take in the visual details of a fast-moving action sequence are compromised. The experience may be way cooler this way (as I said, your mileage may vary), but it's not likely to be embrached by Cahiers du cinéma.]