|Image from fivefeetflat.com|
Watching Super 8 brought me back to my childhood. It has all of the hallmarks of a 1980s kids’ movie (even though it’s set in 1979) and it follows the familiar tropes that were commonplace back then. As a child growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s I consumed probably more than just my fair share of movies. Our VHS copy of E.T. was definitely well watched as was our taped-from-TV versions of The Goonies, Stand By Me, NeverEnding Story and countless others along with them. There was something so satisfying about those films, watching kids, just like me, be the heroes of their destinies, stepping in and solving the problems that their parents or other adults could not. The additional layer of whimsy and science fiction of many of these added an element of fantasy that was so enjoyable. These movies also had elements of real and imminent danger that the children faced and ultimately overcame. It was, to a large degree, inspirational to know that as a kid I could still make a positive difference to my surroundings. Many times the children faced almost certain death or other consequences for doing what they felt was right or what needed to get done and the “grown-ups” were not doing.
Super 8 is a clear homage to that era of filmmaking and it’s no surprise that the pioneer of those films, Steven Spielberg, was heavily involved as the producer this film. JJ Abrams, today’s auteur of sc-fi and whimsy movies and television, wrote and directed Super 8 and clearly pulled from Spielberg’s visual and thematic landscape of precocious children. The story is about a group of middle-schoolers who, while making a student film, witness a mysterious train crash on the outskirts of their town. From that point on strange things begin happening – people, mechanical and electronic devices mysteriously disappear, dogs begin running away, and the US Air Force descends upon the town without explaining the true nature of their presence to the local townspeople or the authorities. When it comes to light that an alien is to blame it’s the children who are able to effectively step up to save their town.
When one of their own is taken by the alien, the kids are not satisfied with solutions the adults offer and refuse to allow them to determine their fates. They take off on their own to remedy the situation in a way that makes sense to them. The adults have yet to prove their competency as time and again they have failed their children. In this world, parents are ineffectual and absent in a number of ways – they die, drink, run away, work too hard and too often – and the kids are left to fend for themselves. Joe (Joel Courtney), the film’s central character, recently suffered the death of his mother. His father (played by Kyle Chandler) is the deputy sheriff who spends his time and effort trying to help everyone else he doesn’t see how much his own son needs him. This is a world where the children do not and cannot trust their parents to take care of them so they must do it themselves. The relationships between the children and their parents are interesting as just like their filmic predecessors, these kids see their parents as completely ineffectual and more of a liability than an asset to their cause/needs.
These young protagonists also must learn that in order to better their situation, they must do the exact opposite from their parents. Where their parents are combative they learn to be compassionate, where the adults are divisive, the kids come together to help one another. This was also a lesson from the movies of the 1980s: The Goonies had to find the money themselves to save their homes and Elliot had to rescue E.T. from the violence the adults were imposing on him. In the 1980s one reason for the failings of on-screen parents was due to the failings of their real life counterparts. The 1980s saw an upsurge in both divorce rates as well as an increase in the number of both parents working full time which resulted in the concept of latch-key kids. Children were being left to their own devices to help themselves so it is no surprise that their on-screen depictions followed in that vein. (For a further discussion on this matter, please see http://tinyurl.com/64joyh2). That being said, given that parents continue to get the same bad rap 30 years later, even in retrospect, it makes me wonder how far we’ve come as a society that we’re still wrestling with these issues.
An interesting distinction between this film and those which are thematically related from three decades ago is that if this movie had come out in the 1980s it would have likely been marketed towards kids. The violence in this film is startling as I watched it, but it wasn’t gruesome or gory, and definitely nothing that would be inappropriate for kids to watch. It was suspenseful fright, and definitely not something foreign to what children were watching 20 years ago. Think of Mamma Patrelli from The Goonies, or “The Nothing” from The NeverEnding Story; these were creatures you did NOT want to be messing with, yet the child protagonists in the films took them on directly and overcame them. Kids watching those movies at the time took cues and strength from these kids knowing that they were able to have the strength and fortitude to save themselves and their families. With this film being made for adults rather than children, is it saying that this is not a lesson we want to be imparting on our children anymore? Are they not meant to take on these adventures? Or, perhaps as it is directed towards adults, the children are meant to make meaning for those intended viewers, not children. It’s a nostalgia item for people like me who grew up on the genre and maybe it’s a lesson for us, who see ourselves in those kids, and need to recapture a sense of adventure and independence that might have been lost as we’ve grown up.
Another interesting layer to this film is the movie being made within the narrative. The kids are in the middle of making their own movie to be entered in a state-wide student film competition and the director, Charles (Riley Griffiths) has decided to make a zombie movie. A recent article by improbable.com (reprinted at http://tinyurl.com/5r6s9eg) has found that zombie movies as a genre tend to thrive in times of war and social upheaval. The choice to use this genre as the student film is an interesting one as in 1979 there was a relative dip in popularity for zombie movies as it was after a spike during the Vietnam War and before the AIDS epidemic made its way onto the screen. The zombie film at hand, called “The Case” could be considered both an homage to the classic zombie movies of the 1950s, but also a cue to the audience to link that era with our own of clear social and political upheaval as the since the year 2000 there has been an unprecedented spike in the genre.
Most impressively, I must say, is this film’s ability to keep its heart while navigating through a sci-fi landscape. Despite the fact that the kids did not have the opportunity to forge an actual relationship with the alien who all the grown-ups saw as the enemy and who they were initially scared of as they did in E.T., or The Goonies, if you’re willing to acknowledge that Sloth was the might-as-well-be-an-alien character), there was the requisite moment of tenderness when the two parties saved each other in the way in which they needed to be saved. The kids were also allowed to be kids despite the moments of their very adult situations. As 14ish-year-olds they were experiencing and expressing burgeoning sexuality with crushes on the cute girl in their group, they made sarcastic cracks to one another about nerdy braces or being brainy, and they rode carefree around their neighborhood on their bikes as kids should do.
Like any sci-fi movie, this one has its share of minor plot holes, which I won’t describe so as not to give anything away. And I very well might be biased as I am quite sentimental when it comes to the movies of my childhood, but despite that, Abrams has managed to provide nostalgia to a generation that grew up on a specific genre of films while also infusing new life into it. The next time around I would like to see these movies once again being made for kids to empower them as they once did for an entire generation.
PS: Don’t leave the credits begin to roll – Abrams treats the audience to the completed student film in all its schlock and awe.