SUPER 8 and the significance of surprise

Last weekend, Anne-Marie, A and I saw Super 8 and we all had a great time. In fact, I can’t think of when I last had the kind of visceral fun at the movies that I had this past Saturday while at Super 8. I’ve been thinking about why that is, not so much to question the feeling itself, but because it isn’t hard to find fault with the movie.

First and foremost is that it is long overdue for a film like this to have “the girl”, in this case Elle Fanning’s Alice Dainard, be the hero and not just the sidekick/love interest/victim. This is not a criticism of Fanning, who, like Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb, does fine work as a “normal” kid caught in tough emotional circumstances and serious, even traumatic, strangeness, but I am disappointed that J.J. Abrams, of all the current popcorn auteurs in Hollywood, can’t seem to conjure a female protagonist for an action and adventure film.

In addition, predictably, given the periodization, active referencing of other films, and adolescent cast, there are moments that are too precious, one exchange of dialogue involving a Walkman stands out for me, and others that verge on camp, particularly in showing Charlie’s (Riley Griffiths) family.

Either of these problems, the gendering of the narrative and preciousness/camp, could have been distracting, but weren’t.

In part, I think, neither of these issues, ultimately, loom that large. Fanning’s character is still interesting for being in a clearly supporting, and traditional, role, and none of the period details or looking back results in a fetishizing of the past, and the campy, precious moments are brief and largely forgivable. So, more than how the faults are mitigated is how significant are the film’s virtues.

Yes, I am, in some ways, the target demographic. Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and E.T. (1982) are films from my childhood, and I was not immune to the movie’s nostalgia. However, I think that it is to J.J. Abrams’ credit, as well as DP Larry Fong and production designer Martin Whist, that, while Super 8 overtly references the Spielberg films in its script and its look and feel, my brain also kept going to Breaking Away (1979), probably in the same way that so many others also thought of Stand by Me (1986), and Time Bandits (1981), which is a giant film for me, more important than Star Wars (1977) or the films listed above. So, I think that the nostalgia it evokes is of a complicated and specific kind, which is for movies and for Hollywood just before and just after the blockbuster became the engine of the industry, and not so much a general harkening back to the late 70s or early 80s.

More important than nostalgia is that Super 8 holds surprises; watching it involves real discovery as the film’s mysteries are revealed to the characters (and the way the narrative is made, I don’t think it matters much that the central mystery ends up being something familiar; what matters is that you need to watch the movie to find out what happens).

What I have been thinking about a lot since the weekend is how uncommon it is for a film like this to be based on an original script. Films centered on adolescents coming of age through extraordinary adventure are, today, typically taken from books and kid/teen/YA fiction.

The economics of this is not hard to figure out – pre-existing stories and characters offer studios “proven” commodities to work with – but it does mean that people go to the movies wanting to see things they already know as opposed to the unexpected, and, indeed, too much of the latter will alienate the core audience. Super 8 is significant for wanting to surprise the audience, or at least in wanting to offer an experience that is as close to purely cinematic as you can get in a popular film.

I also hesitate to attribute too much of the movie’s appeal to nostalgia because the theater I was in was full of kids, all of whom seem fixed to the screen, including A. Generally, we go out to dinner after seeing a movie and our “rule” is no talking about the film until we get to the restaurant. After Super 8, A struggled mightily to follow that rule, which is as good an indication as any that she had exactly the kind of experience that its makers hoped for.

I don’t know if Super 8 will hold up to repeated viewings, or how well it will wear, but I’m grateful for the fun and joy of the first viewing.