Anchored in Time

Super 8 (2011)

illustration by Brianna Ashby
Most people look back on their senior year of high school and remember prom or graduation parties; I remember seeing Super 8 in theaters. Specifically, I remember the feeling that hit me at the end, when an alien reassembles its ship out of shape-shifting cubes and nearby metal objects and ascends to outer space. It was more than mere wonder or joy; it was enchantment—a sense of weightlessness yet also gravity, of being simultaneously transported to another world and awakened to life on this one. It’s the feeling that says, “This is love. This is the reason I watch movies in the first place.”

Since then, the spell has worn off, revealing imperfections. Super 8 is basically a mash-up of coming-of-age stories, monster exploitation flicks, and conspiracy thrillers, shamelessly emulating classics like E.T. and Stand by Me. The plot unfolds more or less how you expect, despite the secrecy that shrouded the marketing campaign. The lone female character of note, however marvelously played by Elle Fanning, serves little purpose in the overarching narrative, aside from giving the male protagonist a love interest to pine for and later rescue. Considering the potential of the genre, it seems trifling, possessing neither the cosmic scope of 2001: A Space Odyssey nor the provocative ideas of a Black Mirror episode. Still, it lingers, refusing to vacate the recess it burrowed in my heart five years ago. Why does the simple, old-fashioned ghost of movies past feel so personal?

I can’t say I relate to its particular portrait of childhood. 14-year-old Joe Lamb (first-timer Joel Courtney, radiating wide-eyed sensitivity) lives in the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio, during the 1970s and spends his days designing model trains and making amateur films with his friends. I, on the other hand, wasn’t alive in the ‘70s; lived overseas for most of my formative years (Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Beijing, before I returned to northern Virginia at the beginning of high school); can barely color in the lines; and prefer watching films to making them. Maybe it’s because of this dissimilarity that Super 8 appeals to me. Having only experienced small towns in passing, through pop culture or visits to my grandparents in Kansas and Missouri, I’m free to romanticize them, to imagine them as oases of carefree serenity where neighbors mingle like life-long friends and kids sneak out of their houses late at night.

Isn’t that what makes nostalgia so alluring? It’s wish fulfillment, inviting us to take refuge in a mythical time or place untarnished by the hardships, disappointments, and ambiguities that come with real life. Conventional wisdom maintains that nostalgia is something to be resisted—an excuse for inertia, a manifestation of arrested development, a guilty pleasure. Of course, that doesn’t stop Hollywood from trying to exploit it, whether in the form of franchise extensions, prestige period pieces like The Artist, or genre throwbacks like Super 8, and it doesn’t stop audiences from awaiting the latest iteration of, say, Star Wars with breathless anticipation. Why, if we know it’s irrational, do we continue to be enamored with the past? Is it human nature, a byproduct of our ability to create long-lasting memories and attachments? Or are we just suckers, too easily seduced by the wiles of studio executives and advertisers?

Dismissing nostalgia as mindless sentimentality elides its complexity. As a man named Don Draper once observed, the word nostalgia is derived from the Greek, a combination of nostos (meaning “return home”) and algia (meaning “pain”). Pop culture tends to forget (or omit) the second half, reducing soul-deep longing to quixotic “good old days” fantasies, which is why it usually comes across as shallow and contrived. Really, with its endless assembly line of sequels, remakes, and reboots, Hollywood isn’t peddling nostalgia so much as familiarity, the comforting lull of repetition; if you like something, the theory goes, shouldn’t you want more of it? But the missing—the ache of wanting something you no longer have—is the whole point. Any gratification obtained from remembering a thing’s former presence is inevitably entwined with discontent due to its current absence. At its most potent, then, nostalgia isn’t a denial of loss, but an acknowledgement – a way of grieving.

Memories provide a lifeline, mooring us to at least an illusion of solid ground. We cling to them not only to escape from the present and avoid the future, but also to make sense of both, to assure ourselves that we are here, alive, human.

Science-fiction has long harbored an affinity for nostalgia. In George Orwell’s 1984, mementos of yesteryear—a piece of coral trapped in glass, an idyllic pastoral landscape—signify weapons against oppression. Star Wars grafts a classic Hero’s Journey structure onto the campy spectacle of space opera, producing an indelible cocktail of the exotic and familiar. All of Steven Spielberg’s ventures in the genre, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to War of the Worlds, double as meditations on (nuclear) family.

It might seem counterproductive for a genre capable of devising cutting-edge technology and visiting distant civilizations to be so preoccupied with looking backward. But science-fiction has a rather ambivalent attitude toward the future. Even as it indulges mankind’s wildest dreams and ambitions, it explores our worst nightmares and deepest anxieties, conjuring up dystopias and apocalypses. We are, apparently, perpetually on the brink of ruin, drifting farther and farther into an infinite void. Memories provide a lifeline, mooring us to at least an illusion of solid ground. We cling to them not only to escape from the present and avoid the future, but also to make sense of both, to assure ourselves that we are here, alive, human.

The rare science-fiction film set in the past, Super 8 is uniquely attuned to the passage of time and the things that get lost along the way. Indeed, its namesake refers to a film format that has mostly faded from use, thanks to the advent of digital; the opening title card displays backlit text that grows steadily brighter before sputtering out, extinguished. A dreamlike aura permeates the production, heightened by the integration of Super 8 footage, Michael Giacchino’s wistful score, and Abrams’s signature lens flares, which at times evoke the eerie neon glow of UFOs. For all the art department’s efforts at reproducing late ‘70s aesthetics in fastidious detail, though, we are always aware that the world on screen is unreal, the afterimage of a bygone era.

Beneath the escapist thrills and lighthearted, profanity-laced banter (writer-director J.J. Abrams exhibits a keen ear for the nuances of adolescent conversation), Super 8 is a narrative about grief, tinged with subterranean melancholy. We first see Joe soon after his mother’s death in a steel mill accident. He’s sitting on a swing set outside his house, his face flushed with winter, his hand cradling a small locket. Inside, formally dressed townsfolk huddle over plates of food, the adults chatting in somber whispers, while the kids loudly speculate about what Elizabeth Lamb’s corpse looks like (“I heard it crushed her completely”). This scene not only illustrates the movie’s darkly humorous tone, but also conveys the protagonist’s emotional state, juxtaposing the blithe ignorance of childhood with the sad wisdom of adulthood and situating Joe by himself, not quite belonging in either sphere.

Super 8 differs from most coming-of-age tales in that it associates the transition from child to adult not with sex or moral corruption, but with death. In its most crucial scene, Elle Fanning’s Alice Dainard wakes Joe up and slips into his bedroom, where they share a tentative heart-to-heart. They’re interrupted when Joe’s home movie projector switches on, illuminating the wall with silent, grainy images of Joe as a baby, and Elizabeth, his mother. Cinematographer Larry Fong frames the two kids in shallow focus, her sharp in the foreground, him blurred in the background, both of them steeped in the flickering light of old film, as if they, too, are memories. Fighting to contain his emotions, Joe reveals that his mother “used to look at me in this way, like really look, and I just knew that I was there – that I existed.” With her gone, his existence feels tenuous; in essence, he has become conscious of his mortality.

For Joe, the private distress of losing a loved one is exacerbated by a larger crisis. The alien’s arrival violently thrusts him and his friends into a world beyond their comprehension or control, full of vanishing neighbors and military cover-ups, upending their sheltered lives. No matter how diligently the youths strive to maintain a semblance of normalcy by collaborating on Charles’s (Riley Griffith) zombie movie and joking around, chaos threatens to encroach. At one point, they decide to film wreckage from the train crash that freed the alien (for “production value”, Charles insists), and the camera circles behind them, surveying the smoldering sprawl of destruction in a stunning wide shot. Suddenly, their little town doesn’t seem so safe or secluded anymore. Lillian eventually gets transformed into an all-out war zone, with the teenagers dodging exploding missiles in the streets where they used to go on twilit bike rides.

Joe finally starts to reckon with his grief while escaping from the alien’s underground lair with Alice and Cary (Ryan Lee). Running into a dead end, he turns to face their pursuer and, amid the screams of his companions, lets the creature pick him up with its gnarled fingers. Calm descends as Joe tries to console the alien, telling it that “bad things happen, but you can still live.” The confrontation proceeds in a series of close-up reverse shots, generating an unexpected intimacy between the two beings; as Dr. Thomas Woodward (Glynn Turman) earlier claimed, the alien can establish a psychic link with people by touching them. But it’s when the alien opens its eyes and meets Joe’s gaze—really looks at him—that we sense they’ve connected. In this moment, the hero’s external and internal journeys dovetail: by bonding with the alien, Joe not only stops the rampage that had been terrorizing Lillian but also finds the sense of recognition, of empathy that he lost when his mother died. Even just for this moment, the unknown is known, something that can be navigated. It is possible to move on.

If anything, my affection for Super 8 has deepened over time. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in compassion, respecting the troubles and inner lives of its young protagonists and perfectly capturing the feeling of growing up—the tumultuous blend of hope, fear, and loneliness. It understands that, at the end of the day, adults aren’t all that different from children; beneath the pretension and pragmatism, we want the same things: to be safe, to belong, to be loved. Why else are we still so captivated by fairy tales? In the final shot of the film, the alien’s ship can be seen leaving Earth, a pulsing blue light in the night sky, while the people of Lillian look on. The darkness yawning above suggests a whole universe that we can’t see, where this is just one of many anonymous towns in the middle of nowhere. But to Joe, his family, and friends, and to us, who have spent part of our lives with them, this is home.