Ahhhh, childhood. When you’re in that 12-10-14 (or whatever) age bracket, so much about life seems just out of reach. You’re interested in the opposite sex for the first time but don’t really know why; the things the grown-ups talk about or that you see on the evening new remain just beyond the full reach of your understanding; and honestly, life itself seems frustratingly close to really, truly beginning, but it just hasn’t happened yet.
There’s one big secret that no one tells kids, though, although they try to through cliched expressions like “enjoy youth while you’ve got it,” etc. — and that is, once all this shit really does start to make sense, it all makes less sense than ever. If you know what I mean. The last throes of childhood really are a magical time, when you look back, because when you’re at that stage where the inner working of human life seem just moments away from your fully comprehending them, you imagine to yourself how great it’s all going to be once you’ve got this whole thing figured out, and there’s no doubt in your mind that you will. The things you don’t quite understand, about why we humans are the way we are and why we’ve constructed our society to be the way it is, are all like ripe fruit hanging not quite low enough for you to pick, but once you’ve got ‘em, damnit, you’ll grab on and not let go.
Then something happens — slowly, inexorably, you do indeed begin to figure life out, only to find out that it all makes even less sense than you thought it did, and the only explanation the older and purportedly “wiser” folks have to offer is the unsatisfying (but you might as well get used to it) “that’s just the way things are.” And honestly, it’s such a letdown, isn’t it? to go from thinking there must be some reason you’re not quite getting why people are the way they are, and the world is the way it is, to knowing there really is no reason whatsoever for any of it, but it’s never going to change so just go with the flow, kid.
What’s all this got to do with writer-director J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, you ask? Well, not since Steven Spielberg (who also served as an air-quote executive producer on this flick)’s E.T. has a summer blockbuster so keenly understood — and yeah, if we’re going to be completely honest, exploited — this particular ultra-early-adolescent mindset, and shown the world so effectively through the eyes of the people who are, let’s face it, the movie’s target audience. And if you happen to be (or were) one of those geeky kids who didn’t quite fit in and cared more about George Romero flicks than about sports, it hits home all the more.
The kids in this movie (a largely unknown cast headed by Joel Courtney as protagonist Joe Lamb and Elle Fanning as the object of his first crush, Alice Dainard, who all, incidentally, do a damn fine job across the board) are so close to getting it — they witness the train crash that will soon change everything they know about their town and, by extension, the world, while out late one night working on a home-made Super 8 zombie movie (just to show how close they-are-to-but-not-quite-getting-it count up the number of times backyard auteur/Joe’s best buddy/obligatorily-included fat kid Charles talks about “production value” for his film), but never fully understand why the military is coming down on their town like a ton of bricks, why they’re soon at the epicenter of what could be an alien invasion, and why some their parents don’t get along, even though they’ve seen a hundred movies about alien/zombie apocalypses and they somehow intrinsically just get the feeling that it’s going to be up to them to put things right. This late-childhood/ultra-early-adolescent sense of awe and wonder and being intrigued, rather than frustrated, by confusion is really at the core of what Super 8 is all about, story be damned.
And frankly, the story does have some weak spots, because the explanations of what is going on are, indeed, less than completely satisfying as they unfold, and it’s so much more interesting to just imagine what might be going on rather than actually know about it. But honestly, whether by accident or design (and frankly I think it’s a little bit of both), this whole arc of going from wide-eyed kid to slightly-more-world-wise-kid-provided-with-less-than-satisfying-explanations-for what’s-going-down is so in tune with the overall aesthetic of the film that even the parts that don’t work feel like they do work because the questions are supposed to be so much more satisfying than the answers. It’s just that the kids, of course, won’t really know that until years later, after the pattern has repeated itself on a smaller scale time and time again.
The other big influence here is Cloverfield — produced, of course, by Abrams himself (a patron at the theater I attended remarked that the whole thing “felt like E.T. meets Cloverfield, and he was exactly right — which makes me wonder why the hell this movie worked so well for me since, earlier comments about its one praiseworthy aspect notwithstanding, I’m not a tremendous fan of E.T. and, frankly, I didn’t care much for Cloverfield at all — but hey, I don’t like either chocolate or peanut butter much on their own, but give me a Reese’s anytime), and making its presence felt in pretty much every CGI alien scene once the shit really starts to hit the fan. We never really see the entire monster, for instance, for more than the briefest of instances toward the end, and a good chunk of why exactly it’s doing what it’s doing is only hinted at rather than fully fleshed out (although it’s pretty easy to fill in the necessary blanks). Which makes me wonder what kind of blockbusters we’re going to be seeing in 20 years’ time when the kids who grew up on Cloverfield grow up to become Hollywood wunderkind directors and producers. but I guess we’ll find out about that when the time comes.
And truth be told, Super 8 doesn’t have much of anything to do with looking toward the future, it’s all about celebrating the past, from its early-80s time period setting to the subject matter that motivates the celebratory heart of the film itself. J.J. Abrams is thanking the Romeros and Spielbergs and Lucases and Carpenters of the world with a cinematic love letter, a ceulluloid portrayal of who he was and what their influence did to cause him to become what he is today. It’s a lot longer on style than it is on substance, to be sure, but it’s sincere, heartfelt, intriguing, and all just a little bit wonderful. Much like childhood itself.