J.J. Abrams Super 8 is a movie banking on the nostalgia of the Spielberg era of innocent American filmmaking. It seeks to appeal, I gather, not necessarily to kids and teens looking to cool off and get some thrills, but instead to their parents, who remember with fondness ET and The Goonies. What makes Super 8 more successful than other recent kidcentric adventure movies, though, is not its relationship to Spielberg’s action-comedies and science fiction dramas—unless that relationship is understood primarily in terms of historical setting. The movie’s 1979 setting is not an accident, nor is it pure homage. Instead, it’s the only way J.J. Abrams could possibly make a movie that doesn’t involve little kids interacting with computers, cellular phones, and the other assorted technical artifacts that keep kids from actually doing interesting things on screen.
The children of Super 8 have the benefit of being allowed to ride bikes, break into buildings, sneak out of their houses and even escape from an air force holding tank. All this makes for an old-fashioned enjoyable two hours. Framing the escaped-alien narrative is the story of Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) fighting the pain of losing his mother and now forced to deal with his good-hearted but misguided father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a role that allows Chandler to indulge fully in his penchant for authority figures with tight lips and strained eyes. Along the way, Joe finds young, somehow forbidden love with Alice (Elle Fanning).
The movie’s adventurous sequences and its treatment of a small town invaded by mysterious though obviously evil military men are entirely successful and enjoyable. Where Super 8 falters is in its added element of serious emotion that it can’t quite seem to pull off: Joe’s mother never seems honestly missed, the pain supposed to be conveyed by Joe’s father never really seems grounded, especially in his feud with local ne’er-do-well drunk Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard), also conveniently Alice’s father. What Abrams hopes will read as raw emotion seems like an unearned afterthought; at the end of the movie, when Joe finally lets go of his mother’s locket, it feels somehow cruel rather than redemptive.
Another place where Super 8 excels is in its deftly constructed (and never overbearing) back-story. Abrams’ always spot-on sense of conspiracy and history constructed by archives of documents and movies emerges here as a perfectly integrated element of the narrative. The same techniques Abrams used on his frequently trying television show Lost to create a sense of dizzying misunderstandings and absent explanations are here used to opposite effects: no loose ends here, only emotions that seem a little too clean cut. This, too, betrays the sense of nostalgia that characterizes the entire movie; it makes the kids seem more youthful, less jaded, more willing to accomplish the tasks that make a good adventure movie. But it also fails to understand the scope of their emotions: a scene in which one boy gets hurt so badly as to have a bone sticking out of his leg seems almost laughable, and even a drunken father’s alcoholic threats seem as false as Joe Lamb’s supposed mourning. What Abrams misses, I think, is that the past isn’t just a place for easy spelunking into reified feelings: despite a historical pedigree, they’re not fooling anyone.