By Sarah Sluis
Since its teaser trailer first hit in May of last year, Super 8 has been high on the anticipation list for movie bloggers like myself. Last night, Paramount hosted a preview of twenty-odd minutes of Super 8 footage at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City. Paramount CEO Brad Grey gave an enthusiastic introduction for J.J. Abrams, the writer/director, identifying him as an important member of the talent stable the studio has assembled.
Set in 1979, Super 8 has a pleasant, nostalgic feel. Hallmarks of Steven Spielberg (who teamed with Abrams as a producer and collaborator) abound, but when I spoke to Abrams afterwards he said he wasn't trying to create a homage or imitation, but a "recreation" of how he felt as a kid and the movies that were important to him. In fact, Abrams was thirteen in 1979, right around the age of the group of kids in his film. What I liked most about the preview footage was how Abrams creates a world that feels very familiar, from a cinematic perspective, without being derivative. His characters feel real and sweet, and Elle Fanning (who I took a liking to in Somewhere) is a standout.
The footage fills in some of the gaps created by the trailer. (Spoiler alert). The first scene we saw, about twelve minutes into the movie, sets up the night of the film's momentous train crash. Fanning steals her Dad's car and agrees to star in the kids' amateur monster movie. First-time actor Joel Courtney is the son of the sheriff whose mother just died in a mill accident. He's the group's makeup artist and harbors a huge crush on Fanning. As they're filming a scene at the train station, Joel witnesses a pickup truck drive into an oncoming freight train, derailing it and unleashing the unseen monster. The kids escape with nothing more than sooty faces and scratches. White Rubik's cube-like things spill out from the wreckage, and Joel leaves with one. The crashing part of the scene went on a little too long, and Abrams confirmed that the scene will be cut shorter.
The second scene, later on in the movie, confirms Abrams as a master movie-maker. When it comes to monster encounters, this man knows what he's doing. The concealment and suspense come not from cutting away (though there's some of that), but some really satisfying auditory wizardry. A sheriff drives into a gas station to fill up, but has trouble getting the attention of the zit-faced gas station attendant, who has the volume up on his new-fangled Walkman. When he goes back outside, his lights and radio turn on and start flashing. The gas meter, which has been steadily clicking out the dollars and cents, goes progressively faster and faster, turning into one long tone by the climax. The Walkman boy can't hear any of it, so his eventual realization has a satisfying punch to it. Without the use of the Walkman and the gas station meter, this scene would be completely run-of-the-mill. This kind of sleight-of-hand suspense replaces the usual: gory play-by-plays or exhausting flagellation of a character by a monster. We even get a peek at the monster in a reflection from pooling gas, but I won't say what I see.
I'll make a reckless, premature guess: Super 8 will be the Inception of summer 2011. The June 10th release will probably have a PG-13 rating, making it a teen and family-friendly outing. There are also (gasp) characters. This monster feels like a means for a small town to band together and a group of friends to grow closer and grow up. There's also a strong undercurrent of innocence. The trailer shows more cars flashing their headlights, and one of the first signs that something is amiss are the town's missing pets. Missing pets! You can't get more small town than that. The tinkling, chiming score brings to mind vintage John Williams scores for Spielberg. There's also an interesting theme running through the movie that will feel familiar to fans of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: That of a small town and its authority being overrun by outsiders (be they media or military) after something terrible is unleashed there. Super 8 may be the nostalgic, just-scary-enough monster movie that takes place in the small town we all wish we lived in and could protect.