Retro Review: Super 8

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Director: J.J. Abrams

Writer: J.J. Abrams

Starring: Ell, Fannin, AJ Michalka, Kyle Chandler

Super 8 is billed as a callback to the 1980s movie scene, one whose primary intent is to rekindle the memories of this bygone period. While such an intent is fine in concept, honoring people’s memories of the past while also giving them something new to chew on is always a big ask, and it generally leaves me more than a little apprehensive when going into these sorts of films.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Guns are used frequently, up to and including an all-out war scene with heavy artillery. The movie’s monster attacks and kills a couple of soldiers, whose blood is shown, and eats another human, though the details are obscured. Several characters are attacked off-screen.

Language/Crude Humor: D**n, s**t, and h*ll are used fairly often. The F-word is used once. Though it’s not really played for laughs, one character is prone to projectile vomiting when he’s nervous, which is often.

Drug/Alcohol Content: A convenience store clerk offers to sell marijuana to a minor, then smokes it himself later in the film to the point of being stoned. Alice’s father is stated to be a drinker and is seen smoking in one scene.

Sexual Content: One female character’s wardrobe consists of jean shorts and a top that bears a great deal of her midriff. Characters occasionally flirt with one another.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Content: An underage character drives without having her license, and children regularly defy their parents, often without consequence. One young character has pyromania.

Positive Content: Alice and Joe genuinely care for one another. The main characters all demonstrate courage for the sake of helping others. The movie’s conclusion portrays violence as being a poor solution to problems.

Review

The thing that likely gets mentioned most in critical discussions of Super 8 is the “nostalgia factor.” This is, in large part, because the film doesn’t really aspire to be anything other than nostalgic: the story is hardly a groundbreaking original, the emotional beats are standard fare, and the atmosphere at every turn is painstakingly designed to immerse viewers in the cinematic experience of yesteryear. The movie’s very title is a callback to an old film format. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than an homage, a throwback to the movies and the culture of 1980s life and the Steven Spielberg heyday.

So … is it a good homage?

Nowadays, it’s hard to watch something like Super 8 and not be instantly reminded of the Netflix show Stranger Things. Both serve as callbacks to the 1980s era, and both center around pitting a small-town population against a mysterious invading horror. Yet, where Stranger Things uses 80s nostalgia as a framework to try and insert its own unique twists, Super 8 doubles down on the nostalgia factor: everything in the movie is a deliberate imitation, from the camerawork to the setting to the character archetypes. The point here, though, is that even an homage needs to be done skillfully and in a way that’s enjoyable in its own right.

And I think this is actually where director J.J. Abrams manages to dodge the criticism of being overly derivative: by so aggressively eschewing any attempt at creating something new and staying so committed to pure imitation, Super 8 does in a way become something unique and different. It’s its own type of movie, and its own type of homage: one that doesn’t seek to reconcile the past with the future but rather chooses a stance with its eyes set firmly toward the past. I imagine most artists will know that mimicking another’s style in a way that feels natural is not an easy task, and Abrams pulls it off in scene after scene with unwavering fluidity.

True to the themes of its predecessors, the movie uses its alien-invasion motif to frame a pubescent coming-of-age story rife with awkward childhood almost-romance and somewhat overly intensified family dynamics. At times, the obviousness with which these elements are thrust into the foreground runs the risk of shattering viewers’ suspension of disbelief, particularly since most of the characters are two dimensional and only exist to evoke the traditional small-town feel of the setting. In fact, most of the things in the movie–including the mysterious, shadowy horror that drives most of the plot–feel as though they exist mostly to provide context for the developing relationship between the two central characters.

The romantic development between Alice and Joe feels forced and rushed at first, but you know it’s coming, so it’s not quite as eye-roll-inducing as it might have been if this were presented as an original story. (The rapid rate at which these two suddenly become attracted to one another could be read as a loving jab at the occasionally contrived plot developments of Super 8’s source material, though I didn’t really read it that way while watching.) The main storyline tends to meander about in the background while these two get to know one another, which is normal for the brand of supernatural sci-fi that’s being emulated, but still represents a drastic departure from more modern storytelling standards. Young ‘uns, be ye warned.

Given the passage of about seven years’ worth of time, along with the rise of the aforementioned Stranger Things to take up the mantle of nostalgia, Super 8 is likely somewhat outdated in its purpose–after all, the best way to relive the movies of any era is to simply rewatch those films. Still, for anyone looking for that kind of viewing experience with a movie that’s not as iconic or well-worn as something like E.T…well, that’s exactly the type of movie that Super 8 is intended to be, and it plays the part well enough to satisfy any of your lingering 80s hunger pangs.

Positives

+ Nostalgia elements are skillfully executed +The main cast of characters are genuinely likable

Negatives

- Certain tropes become obnoxious at times - Thoroughly and unashamedly derivative, though whether this is an actual negative is up for debate since it's exactly what the creators intended

The Bottom Line

While you won't find anything new here, Super 8 is a great way to relive the cultural landscape of 1980s film.

 

6.9

Ian Hancock

Ian is a speculative fiction writer with an English degree from the University of the Fraser Valley. When he's not writing, he enjoys strategy games, sports, anime, and finding new ways to make fun of life.

Leave a Reply