Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during which sorts of movies regular people all over the country are mourning their mothers. This week they get back on the J.J. Abrams train for Super 8.
So, Henry, just as he did two years ago with Star Trek, J.J. Abrams is setting the standard for this summer’s popcorn fare ridiculously (impossibly?) high. This Steven Spielberg production is in many ways much less complex than that space diplomacy epic, but also more engaging and purely pleasant. Super 8 is grounded by classic Spielbergian imperilment of all things good and American: father-son bonds, small-town wholesomeness and sexless romance.
After a mysterious monster disembarks from an Air Force freight train derailed by their science teacher, a group of front-row pre-tween witnesses including mother-mourning Joe (Joel Courtney), would-be zombie movie-maker Charles (Riley Griffiths), prepubescent pyro Cary (Ryan Lee) and collective crush Alice (Elle Fanning) try to enjoy their summer while their town is torn to pieces. But what’s perhaps most appealing about this alien monster movie is that the greatest threat to these sweet kids and their Anytown, Ohio circa 1979, isn’t that tarantular extraterrestrial, but the army men who come for it and take over the town. Is Super 8 a coded plea for withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, Henry, with its influx of cruel men in uniforms actualizing a home front invasion (sparking one crazed townwoman to suspect the Soviets) that symbolizes how the emotional and financial costs of foreign wars have damaged Main Street America?
Uh, I guess so, Ben, though I saw something elementally conservative there: the bad guys are the military, the good guys are the small-town sheriffs—isn’t it federal vs. local, a “state’s rights” kind of thing? But while the movie might promote small government, it also has a levelheaded attitude toward foreign policy. Its sympathy for the “monster,” the alien held captive and tortured by the Air Force, seemed like tacit support for Guantanamo detainees, and for The Other in general, as though Abrams were saying you can be nostalgic for an Eisenhower-esque America without being xenophobic. But there’s also a parallel between the monster and the freaks n’ geeks who make up our gang of little rascals, who are also outsiders (Joe wants to make 8mm zombie movies while his father urges him to go to baseball camp), and perhaps even the filmmakers: the alien feels stuck in a small town; all he wants to do is get the hell out of there, go somewhere lacking in suffocating provincialism, just as the film’s budding, pre-adolescent cineastes surely grow up and move to California to get jobs working for Steven Spielberg, just like Abrams did!
Right, Henry, there’s definitely more to this film’s use of filmmaking-within-the-film than as a simple narrative device to place our Romero-loving munchkins at the crash site. Rather, we should think of Charles’ Super 8 camera as the thing that causes Super 8, transforming the five boys’ (and one girl’s) anxieties and fears into an initially terrifying but ultimately sympathetic six-legged monster. Cinema’s role as a visualizer of a culture’s collective dreams and nightmares is a well-worn concept, but here the protagonists’ relatively sophisticated understanding of film adds a further variable to that equation. They set out to make a zombie movie called “The Case,” in which a chemical spill spawns brain-chompers who take over their town but are eventually contained by an alliance of military and municipal police forces. The fears only latently present in their film become amplified to literally monstrous proportions in Abrams’ film: budding screenwriter Charles doesn’t quite understand why his lead character’s teary wife makes us care about him more, and then in Super 8 he and Joe lead an expedition back into the blast zone to find the girl they both like; in “The Case” tensions between cops and soldiers are easily overcome, but in Abrams’ film they prove insurmountable; an irresponsible chemical company causes the dead to rise in “The Case,” but federal forces destroy their town in Super 8 (just like in Thor!). Abrams amplifies the kids’ cinematically formulated fears and turns them into a national nightmare of government malevolence. And I suppose this magical, meta-narrative function of the Super 8 camera is indicative of the film’s broader technophilia: the monster spends the first half of the film stealing such potent symbols of American consumerism as muscle car engines and microwaves.
But, Ben, the technophilia was just a means; Abrams loves people more than machines. He depicts cinema as a communal medium, not only in its creation—which brings the boys together, as well as Joe and Alice—but also in its consumption. There are two teary scenes of intimacy in the movie, back-to-back, and they’re both during (different) bedroom screenings of Super 8 footage. Anyway, as you say that Abrams amplifies the kids’ fears, I was thinking about the movie’s disasters as external, expressionist manifestations of the characters’ inner turmoil: the train crash a representation of puberty and its emotional “derailment,” or something; the misunderstood monster an embodiment of Joe and Alice’s wifeless fathers, each a meanie in their own way. (Not coincidentally, the monster abducts Alice as she’s being chased by her drunk father.) Though I couldn’t help but also think of the monster, especially his subterranean dwelling, as (besides a nod to Goonies) having something to do with Joe’s dead mother, who can also be found underground (cuz she’s dead), and whose absence is devastating like a monster attack. Hey, did you notice the few scenes that Alice spent made-up (by Joe) like a zombie? Like he was trying to turn his love interest, his mother’s potential replacement, into her—into a dead woman.
Remember also that Joe first spots the alien’s tunnel entrance while visiting his mother’s grave—a different sort of tunnel, but not that different—further linking the monstrous and the motherly. That’s a good point though, Henry, about Joe trying to make Alice over into his mother no matter how morbid that would seem outside the convenient context of a zombie movie shoot. You could take that a step further to suggest that Alice is just a prism through which the film’s central couple, Joe and Charles, expresses its affection. Remember, for instance, that the boys’ bedrooms are perpetually connected via walkie-talkie, and that the film’s most intimate scene takes place as they watch film of the train crash in Charles’ darkened room. Charles confesses that he’s been antagonistic lately neither because Joe likes Alice, nor because Joe won’t let Charles “blow up your train,” but because Alice likes Joe back; she’s stealing him from Charles! As the two boys rekindle their friendship by flickering projector light, something long and wiggly appears suggestively near Charles’ waist: the Super 8 image of the monster. Child sexuality, so often sublimated if not outright denied in mainstream cinema, lurks just beneath Super 8‘s surface, much like the tortured alien. Occasionally it even becomes obvious, like in that coded masturbation scene where Joe lies in his bathtub fondling the alien Rubik’s cube after the train crash. Did you notice any other more-or-less symbolic sexual exchanges, Henry?
Yeah, Ben, I definitely spotted a juvenile bromance between Charles and Joe; I haven’t been moved more by the story of two boys growing apart as they grow up, replacing each other with women, since Superbad. It’s as though the bond between boys were so intense that it and the sexual relationship between men and women can’t coexist; call it The Tragedy of the Heterosexual Male. The filmmakers, though, code the two boys within traditional gender roles: Joe, the lady, plays with make-up; Charles, the bossy male, wants to “blow up Joe’s train” (how emasculating!) The arc of Joe’s character is to go from girly boy to manly man: “are you going to be all right without me?” Charles asks as Joe goes off to save the helpless damsel. “Yes,” he says. ‘Atta boy! Abrams is an artist as obsessed with modern masculinity as Judd Apatow; especially in the form of daddy issues, the theme appears across nearly everything to which he lends his name. How about the daddies here? Both are without wives—one jilted, the other widowed—gruffly archetypal dudes who both have to learn not to man-up but to man-down in the absence of their women: to put their children ahead of themselves, to become protectors and nurturers. There’s the clearest example of the movie’s Spielbergian debt, I guess: the whole world isn’t destroyed to reunite one family, but Abrams does decimate a slice of Anytown, USA just to reconcile two.