Apparently after completing Mission Impossible 3, his debut film as a director, J.J Abrams had two ideas he wanted to explore. He was interested in doing an escaped alien pic but he also wanted to do a coming of age drama. At some point he realised he could actually do both at the same time and so it is that we have Super 8.
Initially I thought this film was a bit too derivative and was very much of the opinion that if you had time to sit down and watch ET and The Goonies then there would be little point in watching this. I thought it became an overblown extra terrestrial monster flick at the end and this was a bit of a sell out to audiences who liked their sci-fi loud and violent. Over time though I have come to develop a real affection for this film and I think it was the one I have been most wrong about in recent years. Who knows, in a couple of years time I might change my mine and end up singing the virtues of The Great Gatsby or Man of Steel too.
I can see now that Super 8 is a great mix of genres and I hope it will become a classic for current teenagers in the way Stand By Me did for us (this is definitely one for the older kids) but its 70s setting also makes it easy for nostalgic adults to connect with. It isn’t a perfect film and any stuff they get wrong is the stuff to do with the monster but the scenes that centre on the adolescent heroes dealing with growing up are wonderful. This is largely down to an amazing young cast and Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning, as Joe and Alice, are particularly brilliant. It is a total joy to see them skirt around one another nervously building a touching relationship amidst the developing carnage. J.J Abrams beautifully blends the emotions with the explosions and nowhere is this more obvious than in the railway station scene. To look closely at this one part of the film is to see Super 8 at its best.
These events start 11 minutes and 26 seconds into the film when the kid’s car pulls up alongside the station building. It is the middle of the night and they are there to shoot an important section of their amateur zombie film. The way they then bicker and banter as they set up the camera and rehearse is a delight. The two leads seem impervious to the frantic activity of their friends though, Alice because she is just so cool and composed and Joe because Alice is just so cool and composed. There is a great little moment as he does her make up that is just full of whatever the preteen version of sexual tension is.
Right after this we have that incredible bit where Alice rehearses her scene for this cheesy Zombie film and all the boys look on as she delivers the most amazing and effortlessly natural performance. Even though I was a little nonplussed when I first saw Super 8, I did think this was the best two minutes of cinema I saw in 2011 and it shows what a fantastically talented actress Elle Fanning is. The bit where Alice breaks out of character afterwards, innocently looks at her slack jawed peers and asks “Was that good?” is just icing on the cake.
Then at 15 minutes 35 seconds we hear a train approaching and the scene steps up a gear. Just having the train rushing past them is exciting enough but then Joe spies a pick up truck heading for the track ahead and everything really changes. Soon we are witnessing the most amazing train crash as carriages come off the rails, buckle, fly through the air, smash the station building to smithereens, explode and rain down all around the panicked kids. It is very impressive stuff and all the while the abandoned super 8 camera whirls and clicks away on the floor capturing who knows what.
Just as things begin to settle down Joe, standing bewildered among the wreckage, sees that there is something alive in one of the fallen cargo carriages. Something alive and something very big denting the metal in an effort to escape. The door suddenly flies off the container and digs itself into the ground. Then the camera moves away finding one of the boys, Zach Mill’s Preston, standing in the carnage. There is a lovely little, almost throw away moment; “I’m okay.” he says having miraculously survived the destruction and then, feeling the need to correct himself, holds up his hand, “I have a scrape!”
The other boys begin to gather and seems everyone is okay but then the boys see the blood and it looks like the mood is going to shift dramatically. Alice is not with them anymore. Then without the director labouring this point she comes up behind them asking what all the blood is. It turns out to just be the red corn syrup from Joe’s make up box and I am sure there is something to be taken from this about the artifice of film making. We don’t get time to think about it though because the story set up continues apace as a mysterious metal cube is picked up and pocketed giving us bigger things to ponder.
One of the thoughts that has probably passed through the mind of most of viewers is then nicely dealt with in a typically understated piece of juvenile discourse:
“How could a pick up truck derail a train, that’s impossible?”
“It obviously isn’t.”
This demonstrates a great understanding of the audience and we are happy to go with it.
Then things build further as they find Dr. Woodward, who is of course one of their teachers, in the drivers seat of the truck. He is dead, he is not dead, how can he not be dead? He has a map, he is pointing a gun at them. It is all pretty unlikely but we are enjoying the ride so we roll with it. He isn’t dead because those kids need a reason not to tell anyone about all of this, the story demands it. Dr. Woodward has an ominous warning to give:
“They will kill you, do not speak of this or you… and your parents will die.”
So off they flee back to the car that has somehow also survived intact while several hundred tonnes of flaming train raining down from the sky. The military are coming so the kids are going and as the running time clock hits 25 minutes the scene is done. The set up is now complete for the remaining hour and a half.