The late ‘70s were crucial for the maturation and expansion of science fiction as a movie genre. There was the phenomenon of Star Wars and taut dramas like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien. While plenty of goofy stuff hasn’t aged as well, the era was eye-opening to a generation of young movie fans.
Of course, we don’t necessarily need to dig up a history book to know about influential sci-fi in the ‘70s. J.J. Abrams directed a movie in 2011 to tell us all about it. Ten years later, Super 8 still stands out as an earnest, charming piece of science fiction that places kids squarely in charge. You can watch or revisit Abrams’ nostalgic sci-fi film, now that Super 8 is streaming on HBO Max.
Super 8 was widely heralded as a personal film for Abrams, celebrating not just the movies of yesteryear but the freedom of creativity that comes with childhood. The director told American Cinematographer at the time that the “DNA of Super 8 is this weird, geeky obsession we had with the magic of making movies when we were kids.” That being said, it’s not strictly autobiographical.
Abrams, the son of two TV and film producers, grew up in a Jewish family in New York and Los Angeles. His upbringing is about as far away as one could get from the life of 12-year old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney). Joe lives in Lillian, Ohio, a small, vaguely Christian town where his dad (Kyle Chandler) is on the police force. As the movie opens, Joe’s mom just passed away in a factory accident.
Joe is isolated from everyone, staying outside in the snow during a depressing post-funeral gathering. His father doesn’t know how to reach out to him. But his friends have other concerns: Will Joe still be interested in making their movie?
Joe doesn’t make movies, not really. That would be his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), who is determined to enter a regional film festival and have his movie compete against those made by 15-year olds. Joe prefers making model trains sets, but Charles uses Joe’s ingenuity with paint and detail to help with make-up. And he also wants to blow up Joe’s trains.
Unlike with music or a book, it’s impossible to make a movie completely alone. You use what you can, Super 8 says, and hope you get away with it. That’s why Charles convinces a slightly older girl Alice (Elle Fanning) to drive them around to a train station late at night to film their zombie movie. But then, a truck drives into the train tracks and rams a speeding train, triggering a massive collision. Even odder, the kids' science teacher (Glynn Turman) was the one driving the truck.
While most of Super 8 was filmed in West Virginia, the movie’s crew shot the train crash in Victorville, California. Martin Whist, a production designer, told Forbes for an oral history that the crew had to turn a piece of the brown California desert into a lush mid-America landscape. “We literally irrigated it to grow this green grass.” And then the crew laid out 800 feet of track for an explosion that was felt a mile away.
The mysteries start to add up in Lillian. Car engines start getting ripped out of vehicles, and the sheriff goes missing. To make matters worse, the military shows up without any respect for Kyle Chandler’s character and his small-town ways. The evil Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) refuses to offer any hints, and the town starts to think the Soviets are to blame.
For Joe, Charles, Alice, and the rest of the kids, it’s a chance to add production value to their movie. Real-life soldiers parading around your streets? Time for your characters to get in touch with their old squadmates from Vietnam. But eventually, production is put on hiatus as Nelec forces the town to evacuate to a military base.
It’s not actually the Soviets who are causing all the mysterious disappearances. Given the films that inspired Super 8, it’s not a huge shock to learn that it is an alien. A tie-in interactive trailer within Portal 2 offered hints, showing viewers that the train came from Area 51.
But for Abrams, the more profound mysteries of Super 8 lay not in its lore but in creating a “true Amblin movie,” which means a Steven Spielberg movie in the spirit of E.T. and The Goonies. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of those classics, it wears its heart on its sleeve and is better for it. It’s telling that it predicted a wave of ‘80s nostalgia, most notably the similar-feeling Stranger Things.
By far, the most fun in Super 8 comes after the story is over, during the credits. Here, the viewer finally sees what the movie promised all along: the kids’ movie, The Case.
Written and directed by the younger cast members, shot with an actual Super 8 camera, and given intentionally poor lighting and editing by the movie’s crew, it is legitimately charming. The kids are zombies, detectives, factory bosses, and playing along with so much delight that it’s easy to get swept up in it.
The magic of movie-making abounds throughout Super 8, but an end-credits sequence shows what it’s like beyond all the special effects.
Super 8 is now streaming on HBO Max.