Released by a train crash, a mysterious creature rampages through a small Ohio town. The military is on its trail, the local authorities are overwhelmed, and a group of local kids… who planned to spend their summer making a zombie movie… take it upon themselves to figure out what’s going on. That’s the set-up for director J.J. Abrams’ 2011 film Super 8 (watch it HERE) – and it’s time for it to be Revisited.
Like many aspiring filmmakers, J.J. Abrams started making movies at a young age, casting his friends and shooting on Super 8 film. As a teenager, he was able to participate in a young filmmakers’ festival in Los Angeles. Newspaper coverage of that festival caught the attention of one of Abrams’ heroes, another director who had gotten started making Super 8 movies when he was young: Steven Spielberg. Although Abrams and Spielberg didn’t meet at that time, the Jaws director did reach out to this kid and offered to pay him and a friend three hundred dollars to repair some of his old 8 millimeter reels. They took the job.
Jump ahead a few decades. Abrams has become a popular writer, director, and producer. He made TV shows like Felicity, Alias, and Lost. He directed Mission: Impossible III and a Star Trek reboot. He met Steven Spielberg. And now he wants to make a movie about a group of kids making a movie together. The story would be a period piece, set in 1979. The lead characters would be around the same age Abrams was in ‘79, thirteen. The idea of making a movie about kids in the YouTube age, shooting a movie with an iPhone, held no appeal for him. This was going to be set in an era when kids didn’t have easy access to cameras. When the ones making their own little movies were likely oddballs. And they would be shooting their movie on Super 8 film. Which is why the title would be Super 8.
Abrams called Spielberg and asked him if he would like to produce the movie. As Abrams told The Guardian, “When I called Steven, it was an instinct to work with someone who was a hero of mine since I was a kid. And I had no idea what the movie was. All I had was the title, and knew this could be a movie about a group of kids making movies. He was the one person I knew who had done this the way I had, who could help a movie like that get made. So I called him, and he said yes.”
Then Abrams had to figure out the story. With Spielberg on board, he wanted to make something that would feel like a throwback to the Spielberg films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones, E.T., Poltergeist, The Goonies. He wanted to emulate the spirit of those films. Super 8 needed to have a grounded group of characters, but they’d be dealing with something extraordinary. So he decided to combine the “kids making a movie” idea with another one he had been thinking of. A story about the U.S. government transporting something by train from Area 51 to another facility… but the train crashes on its way through Ohio. This thing gets loose and starts wreaking havoc in a small town. As it turns out, that’s the town where the young filmmakers live.
Abrams wrote the screenplay, then began assembling the cast and crew. The actors cast to play the core group of kids were: Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb, who provides the camera and the makeup effects. Riley Griffiths as writer/director Charles Kaznyk. A horror fan who has been inspired by the work of George A. Romero to make a zombie movie. With hopes of submitting the finished film to a festival in Cleveland. Gabriel Basso as lead actor Martin, who tends to vomit when he gets nervous. Ryan Lee as pyromaniac zombie performer Cary. Zach Mills as the high-strung Preston. And in a surprising turn of events, the kids even get a girl to agree to be in their movie. Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard. Who drives years before she’ll be allowed to get a license. Kyle Chandler plays Joe’s dad Jack, a local police Deputy. Ron Eldard is Alice’s troubled father Louis. Since the kids are paying tribute to Romero, Abrams reached out to the legendary filmmaker to see if he would make a cameo. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get in contact with Romero. So he doesn’t appear in the movie, but his name is still referenced in it.
The kids are shooting their movie at a train station when an Air Force train comes barreling through and is derailed in a crash caused by their biology teacher Dr. Woodward. Who has a history with the cargo and is played by Glynn Turman, who played sort of a similar character in Gremlins. The crash is over-the-top and ridiculous by design. The idea is that we’re not seeing the crash as it actually was. Instead, it’s how the kids would describe it if they were to tell someone about it: multiple explosions, tanker cars flying through the air, them and their friends dodging wreckage.
The crash also unleashes a mysterious creature, which starts causing strange, frightening occurrences around the town of Lillian, Ohio. Population twelve thousand. The local authorities are overwhelmed. The sheriff goes missing and Deputy Lamb has to take control. The military moves in, represented by Noah Emmerich as Colonel Nelec. Charles and the rest of the kids want to distance themselves from this mess. But Joe is drawn into the mystery… and by the end, has come to understand the situation more than anyone else. Other than Dr. Woodward.
Abrams was worried about working so extensively with kids. So he turned to Spielberg and Stand by Me director Rob Reiner for advice on how to work with them. Cinematographer Larry Fong was very reluctant to work with kids… but as he read the script, he realized why he needed to work on the movie with Abrams. As he told Forbes, it was “Because we love science fiction, we’ve loved monsters and aliens from a young age. We love special effects and we love Spielberg.” The “kids making movies” part of the story wasn’t just a nod to Abrams’ and Spielberg’s childhoods. It was something Fong and several of Abrams’ other collaborators could relate to as well. That connection to the material brought a lot of heart to the film, and a palpable feeling of nostalgia.
Abrams had a visual in mind. An idea of starting a movie with a shot of a “Days Since Last Accident” sign in a factory. As we watch, the number on the sign is reset from a high number, down to just one. He was already filming Super 8 before he realized this is the movie that would start that way. And the reason that sign is being reset is another element that brings a lot of heart and emotion into the story. Joe’s mother, Deputy Jack Lamb’s wife, was killed in that factory accident. As much as it’s a movie about child filmmakers and a rampaging alien, it’s also a story about people dealing with grief. Trying to figure out how to move on after the loss of a loved one. Joe and Jack aren’t the only characters affected by this accident, either. Alice’s father Louis works at that factory. Mrs. Lamb was killed while covering his shift for him. So her death has had a devastating emotional impact on them as well.
Coincidentally, Abrams found out while working on this movie that his own mom had cancer. She would pass away almost exactly one year after the film was released. He pays tribute to his mom in the film by putting her name on one of the town businesses: Carol’s Diner.
Abrams and his cast handled the story of loss beautifully. Joe and Jack don’t have the connection that Joe had with his mother. Jack doesn’t understand his son, doesn’t get his fascination with filmmaking and monster make-up. He isn’t quite sure how to deal with him. Their interactions don’t go well. Their awkward situation at home is reflected in what happens in the town. When the sheriff goes missing, Jack has to take charge of the police force. As he says at one point, the town’s residents have one person to rely on now. “It used to be someone else, but now it’s just me.” The same can be said for Joe. He used to be able to rely on his mother. Now he’s stuck with his dad. And while Jack steps up immediately for the townspeople, it takes him a while longer to step up for his son. Meanwhile, there’s bad blood between Jack and Louis for what happened to Mrs. Lamb. They’ll have to work through that, because the tragedy and their fathers’ dislike for each other brings Joe and Alice closer together. All of the actors in this situation do great work, with Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning both proving to be incredible child performers.
The other child actors don’t have as much emotional material to work with, but they’re great in their roles, making their characters a lot of fun to watch. Anyone who has experience trying to make movies as a kid will probably be able to relate to their filmmaking and film planning scenes. And when they get in over their heads… getting stuck in the middle of the military’s battle with the alien… it brings to mind kid adventure classics. Several of which are part of Spielberg’s filmography.
Abrams is always at his best when he’s building a mystery. He does that well here, as the alien isn’t just smashing buildings and attacking people. It’s scaring the town’s pets away while collecting objects from around town. Microwaves. Car engines. Power lines. It’s building something. And it has something to do with the strange white cubes that were found scattered around the train wreckage. Joe took one home, and it starts moving on its own…
The emotional element extends into the story of the alien. Woodward knew, and the kids find out, the alien isn’t an evil being. It has been in the military’s custody for over twenty years. Experimented on, tortured, imprisoned. Its experience has caused it to hate people. But it can also make psychic connections with them through touch. When someone connects with it, they can feel the pain it’s in. Since Joe is also in pain, he’s able to understand it. This isn’t a movie where the alien monster needs to be destroyed. It needs to be treated with compassion. And Joe is able to do that.
Abrams has described the alien as a metaphor for the pain Joe is feeling. He has to confront it to be able to move on with his life. As Abrams said, “You have to face the thing that is the most frightening to you, the most devastating to you, to get past it.” But it works even if you don’t take it as a metaphor. What we’re shown on the screen is a wonderful moment. Two beings in pain making a connection with each other. Being able to understand each other. And realizing that they can move on from the bad things that have happened in their lives.
Throughout the movie, Joe is seen holding on to a locket that his mom always wore. In the final moments, metal objects are being drawn to the alien’s creation. Including the locket. It isn’t until Joe can let go of the locket… a visual representation of him being able to carry on after losing his mom… that the movie can reach its resolution.
Made on a budget of fifty million dollars, Super 8 was a financial success, earning more than two hundred and sixty million at the global box office. It was also well received by both critics and audience members. Rotten Tomatoes has the film listed with eighty-one percent positive reviews and a seventy-five percent positive audience score. Some of the negatives come from viewers who were disappointed by the alien side of the story. Others felt that Abrams tried too hard to emulate Spielberg films of the past. Looking back now, it seems like Super 8 was just slightly ahead of its time. The nostalgia it deals in became very popular soon after its release, giving us ‘80s throwbacks like Stranger Things, another story about young kids dealing with extraordinary circumstances and terrifying creatures and another successful attempt at emulating the feel of Spielberg classics. It’s great to see these nostalgia-inducing throwbacks, and Super 8 paved the way. A decade later, Spielberg would make his own tribute to the “kids making Super 8 movies” era, The Fabelmans. Based on his childhood.
Super 8 has a solid fan following and is a respected entry on Abrams’ filmography. But there’s a feeling that it’s undervalued. It didn’t receive as many accolades as it deserved. And it doesn’t get enough credit for telling such a beautiful, emotionally resonant story within a creature feature set-up.
The film did well enough that it probably could have received a sequel of some sort. On set, the kids would joke about coming back for a sequel called Super 9, not quite grasping that the movie was named after a type of film. The next step up would be 16 millimeter, so it would have been Super 16. But a sequel was never in the cards. This was designed to be a standalone film that tells a complete story. Beginning, middle, and clear ending. And that’s part of its charm. It’s refreshing to see a film of this scale that was never meant to lead to anything else. It wasn’t world building, there were no plans for a cinematic universe. We only got this one peek into the life of Joe Lamb and his friends and family. We got to watch them make a cool, goofy little zombie movie. (Which plays out in its entirety during the film’s end credits.) And we got to watch them get dropped into a mind-blowing adventure. It’s a lot of fun to watch and we can go back to it any time we want. But when Joe lets go of that locket, the story is over. And we have to move on. Just like he does.