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J.J. Abramss Super 8 Was Ahead of Its Time

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Here are a few things that the film Super 8, released June 10, 2011, can now do: Enroll in fifth grade, exchange a tin-anniversary gift, and assert its rightful status as the most overlooked film of the decade. The family-friendly J.J. Abrams sci-fi epic, now with 20 percent more lens flares* (*citation needed), turns 10 this month, marking a full decade of its under-appreciation. Super 8 has fallen out of our cultural consciousness over time, but it deserves a rewatch. For starters, the plot offers a classic setup: On an idyllic summer evening in 1979, a few AV-club-type kids making a zombie movie (on Super 8 film, oh-ho!) witness a train crash. It seems like the train was intentionally derailed to release something, but … what? And why? It’s up to our young heroes to uncover the truth before it takes out their entire town.

Super 8 expertly deploys tropes that tug on the heartstrings. On paper, it would seem like there are almost too many of them: the loss of a parent, a strained father-son relationship, beef between the local cop and the town ne’er-do-well, fishy military operations, a monster with unclear motives, the kids biking everywhere, no one listening to the kids … you know how it goes. But it all just works. That’s largely thanks to its familiar suburban setting and superb performances from young actors like Joel Courtney (in his first-ever role) and a mesmerizing Elle Fanning. The friendships feel genuine and the conflicts honest, and the tension between Joe (Courtney), still missing his mother, and his father, the town deputy (Kyle Chandler), is compelling. What’s more, the script is funny, but not overly so; it’s warm and even laugh-out-loud at times without being too quippy or relying on shtick. Era-perfect details enhance its familiarity: The hairstyles, technology, costuming, and cars all signal a specific pocket of time, lending an intentionally Spielbergian layer to the proceedings. As the film draws to its emotional, dazzling climax, it’s reminiscent of E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind in ways that feel earned. It’s like a summer blockbuster made in a lab.

What sells it more than anything? The genuine look at the monster. Many looks, in fact. 2008’s Cloverfield, a found-footage film produced by Abrams, was not as good about that. While Abrams neither wrote nor directed Cloverfield, he was the highest-profile producer attached to the film at the time, and marketing certainly led audiences to believe that it was his work. Those who were disgruntled by the lack of a Proper View Of Cloverfield Monster (reportedly sacrificed to preserve the film’s chaotic realism) may have been less interested in another Abrams-backed creature feature so soon after. In fact, by 2010, he had been obliged to clarify that the films weren’t related. Fortunately, he learned from Cloverfield’s missteps and crafted a truly breathtaking dude for Super 8. Finish off the movie’s astonishing visual effects with some masterful editing and set it all to a moving score and you’ve got what has to be the most overlooked film of 2011. Not even a nod for sound mixing at the Oscars? How come, Chief Willoughby?

Admittedly, it’s not perfect. There are few people of color present in Super 8, which is disappointing and limiting. And society has progressed past the need for a dead mom as shorthand for childhood trauma. Sure, Occam’s razor would suggest that if a film isn’t popular, it probably isn’t good. However: Isn’t it just as possible that it was ahead of its time? Consider that five years after Super 8 was released, the Duffer bros. project Stranger Things exploded out of Netflix and into worldwide domination. Set a handful of years after Super 8 but still in small-town America, Stranger Things was an homage-laden sci-fi series starring a group of misfits, all unknown, who solve an otherworldly mystery kick-started by a secretive military operation gone awry. The Demogorgon’s look even evokes the Super 8 monster’s. So maybe audiences just weren’t ready for Super 8 in 2011. But after the year our own world just experienced in the proverbial Upside-Down, it’s time to shun the cynical and embrace the wholeheartedly optimistic.

To be fair, we didn’t fail the movie entirely back then. Roger Ebert gave Super 8 3 ½ stars, and it holds a ripe score of 81 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Mop-top lead Courtney now appears in Netflix’s The Kissing Booth series, and the younger Fanning is a compelling (and unexpectedly offbeat!) movie star. Even AJ Michalka, who has a small but fun role, is agin releasing music again with her sister, fellow actor and musician Aly Michalka. And, of course, the fall after Super 8 was released, Chandler took home an Emmy for his role as Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights. But the fact remains: We simply do not talk about this film enough! It’s by turns cozy, nostalgic, spooky, and wholesome, and much like the monster at the center of it all, it just wants a little more of our love. Hey, that’s not a spoiler. You’ve had ten years to watch it.

Super 8 is streaming on Paramount+.

Super 8 Was Ahead of Its Time