Something — some thing — is terrifying the good folks of Lillian, Ohio, but what is it? A gas-station attendant, his face blanched with fear, sees it and screams; all we see is his body being jerked out of the frame. A telephone lineman on his crane hears it as a clattering clank of metal, like a clumsy heist at Home Depot; soon he’s gone. But the creepiest hint that a nasty creature lurks in Lillian comes when 12-year-old Joe (Joel Courtney) posts a notice about his lost dog on a public bulletin board and the camera pulls back to reveal a hundred posters of missing pets. Who, or what, took the dogs out?
J.J. Abrams, writer and director of the scary, artful new thriller Super 8, is a hoarder of secrets, a master in the fine art of withholding information. Fans of Lost, the TV series he co-created, had to stick around six years for its mysteries to be revealed. “J.J. makes the audience wait for it,” says Steven Spielberg, a producer and abettor of Super 8. With a conjurer’s practiced blandness, Abrams simply says, “I believe in anything that will engage the audience and make the story more effective.” But the man is no sadist. He, more than anyone, loves not knowing what comes next. As a boy, he bought a mystery box at a Manhattan magic store; now 44, he still has the box and still hasn’t opened it.
What’s Inside the Boxcar?
The mystery box in Super 8 is a boxcar on a freight train speeding through Lillian one night in 1979 as some kids are furtively shooting a Super-8 movie. Pudgy Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the director, with the quick mind, bossiness and vast reserves of movie lore that mark a budding auteur. Cary (Ryan Lee) puts his pyrotechnic and possibly pyromaniacal skills to use as special-effects wizard. Joe does makeup and constructs the models that Charles’ action film will crash. But like any nebbishy guys, these kids are making movies to attract the ladies — specifically their leading lady, Alice (Elle Fanning), a 14-year-old blonde with an imperious star quality. As Joe powders her face for the shoot, he gazes at her with naked adoration, perspiration forming on his brow like evening dew.
In the middle of their big take, the train crashes into a car on the tracks, spraying tons of debris their way and sending a platoon of military men fanning out across the scene. Only Joe has noticed that the car was driven onto the tracks, seemingly in a suicide mission. In the car is the boys’ science teacher (Glynn Turman), injured and near death. “They will kill you,” he mutters. “Do not speak of this or else you and your parents will die.” Do not speak of what? Of the thing that none of the kids saw — the some thing that has escaped.
In the other movies Abrams directed, the third Mission: Impossible and the retooled Star Trek, he ornamented familiar mythologies. Super 8, his first feature as writer-director, required that he build his own box — and open it. “Withholding things in a story is no good if you aren’t building to something substantial,” he says. “It becomes foreplay without the main event, and no one wants that.”
Abrams adepts will recall a similar story, of young people banding together to face a ravenous monster, from Cloverfield, the 2008 alien-invasion film he produced. But Super 8 has a gentler vibe: it leavens the apocalyptic threat with the budding bonding of Joe and Alice. Joe’s beloved mother has recently died in a steel-mill accident. His father (Kyle Chandler, from Friday Night Lights), Lillian’s deputy sheriff, has his hands full trying to save the town. The lonely 12-year-old, clinging to his mother’s necklace as a talisman, is aching for the sympathetic company of an older woman — even two years older.
Alice, just crossed to the other side of the great puberty divide, possesses a maturity that comes as much from abiding her angry father as it does from her natural poise. She’s lonely too. Their inchoate romance could prove therapeutic for both, with Alice finding pure friendship and Joe learning to let go of morose childhood. All these kids, Abrams says, are “on the precipice of something — the end of a time. I wanted to catch kids at the very edge of full-blown, raging puberty, in their last moments of innocence.”
The Age of Innocence
There’s a reason that Super 8, with all its cool thrills, also seems a work of innocence: it takes incidental inspiration from the films of a director who, back in 1979, was the J.J. Abrams of his day. Look closely and you’ll see that Super 8 is a medley of tropes from the films of Spielberg’s early prime. They’re all here: Duel (an unseen, car-wrecking force), The Sugarland Express (a blonde driving a hot car), Jaws (the town sheriff tracking a monster), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (ordinary folks unearthing a military secret), 1941 (people panicking on news of an invasion), Poltergeist (an underground menace that steals people), The Goonies (kids on a dangerous mission) and especially E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (an alien event seen through children’s eyes, plus a few other echoes we won’t mention).
The films are summoned not as a series of gag references but as an evocation — in a grainier, more urgent style — of the old Spielbergian nexus of childhood fear and wonder. “I didn’t want the film to look like it was made in 1979,” Abrams says. “I wanted it to look the way we remember films looking from 1979. I wanted to build a bridge between then and now. This was always an Amblin film in spirit,” he says, referring to Spielberg’s production company, “because that period in my life was so profoundly impacted by American cinema of the era.”
That era was the late ’70s, when Jeffrey Jacob Abrams was a movie-mad kid growing up in Los Angeles, the son of film and TV producer Gerald Abrams. Super 8 is a sort of fictionalized memoir of his early days shooting Super-8 movies with his pal Matt Reeves. Reeves later would direct Cloverfield as well as Let Me In, which, like Super 8, is a poetic rendering of preadolescent anguish in a horror-film setting. (Larry Fong, another teen compadre of Abrams’, is Super 8‘s cinematographer.)
When they were 15, Abrams’ and Reeves’ work was written up in the Los Angeles Times, and, miracle of miracles, the boys got a call from Spielberg associate Kathleen Kennedy with an offer to have them repair two of the 8-mm films, then crumbling, that the master had made when he was their age. “To this day,” Abrams says, “it makes no sense to me why Steven would put the original prints of Firelight and Escape to Nowhere in the hands of two 15-year-old strangers. I mean, have you ever seen 15-year-olds? Don’t give them things if you want them back — especially repaired. But Matt and I did it.”
Decades later, Spielberg and Abrams revisited their boyhood love of moviemaking. “We both had idea fragments about our early 8-mm days, using friends to act and crew our movies,” Spielberg says. “Kind of like an insane 8-mm Our Gang adventure. Then J.J. had the idea to put them in the middle of a big sci-fi event but emphasized that the event was the B story and the kids were the big story. I acted as his sounding board, but J.J. was the creative engine from Day One. He felt this story from his soul. As I watched him acting out scenes, I saw myself 20 years ago. He was like my time machine.”
Fanning, playing 14 when she was 12, is a showbiz pro, having co-starred in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. But Courtney, 14 playing 12, was just an Idaho kid taking acting lessons when Abrams cast him. The stark tenderness of their scenes is surely due in part to the director’s communicating with them peer to peer, as if, once again, he were a kid putting his friends through their movie paces. “He was 14 directing 13-year-olds,” Spielberg says, “and the honesty that shows in every performance was the natural result.”
Given Abrams’ talent for the tease, Super 8 has fanboys on point for the movie’s June 10 release. They and other moviegoers may be shocked at how the film plays with genre expectations, then transcends and obliterates them. “The greatest fun and challenge,” Abrams says, “came from balancing a coming-of-age love-story character piece with essentially a monster movie.” Did you ever cry at a boy-meets-girl picture? All right, did you root for a monster to win? Those are just two of the surprises awaiting you in the year’s most thrilling, feeling mainstream movie. The some thing you’ll feel is the open heart of J.J. Abrams, Super 8‘s boy genius.