Where were the “Super 8” kids when I was growing up? I would have fit right in with J.J. Abrams’ scrappy band of Goonie-esque movie makers. I have no idea how autobiographical this movie is, if Abrams really had childhood buddies willing to do special effects, make-up, and act while he bossed them around from behind the camera. If that was the case, I am extremely jealous. Back in my middle school days, I would have killed to have friends like these. While I certainly had good friends back then, none of them were as obsessed with movies as I was.
My envy extends to the era in which Abrams got to be a kid. Thanks to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the late 1970s were a wonderful time to be a young movie lover. “Super 8” is set in the summer of 1979, and its heroes are about thirteen years old, Abrams’ age at the time (my own summer of '79 was spent teething and crapping my pants). These are exactly the kinds of kids who would have been terrified by “Jaws,” thrilled by “Star Wars,” and awed by “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I grew up on those movies, too, but I saw them all on video a decade or so later. By that time, they were canon. I don’t remember a time when those movies were new and fresh, the way they were for millions around the globe.
Not that I was deprived of pubescent cinematic joy, mind you. In the summer of 1989 alone, at the age of ten, I was completely swept away by Tim Burton’s “Batman,” James Cameron’s “The Abyss,” and Spielberg & Lucas’ own “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” I saw each one of them three times, and each has a special and formative place in my movie-going heart. All were rated PG-13, which gave my ten year-old self the tasty satisfaction of seeing something that was ever-so-slightly forbidden. They were also three very distinct visions – one a fantastically Gothic urban nightmare, another a sunny globe-trotting adventure, and another a plunge into the depths of the ocean, with glowing alien visitors. All very cool. And each movie won a single Academy Award apiece (Art Direction for “Batman,” Visual Effects for “The Abyss,” and Sound Effects Editing for “Indiana Jones”).
But still, as much as those movies from ’89 resonate for me personally, they don’t seem to evoke the same transcendent cultural nostalgia as do the early works of Spielberg & Lucas. Some will say that they’re just not as good as those older movies. A fair and arguable point, but every movie fan has rose-colored goggles for the films that first got him or her excited about cinema. Thankfully, I had big sisters who, like Abrams, were old enough to experience those Old School Spielberg movies first-hand on the big screen. When they were kids, home video was not an option, and online streaming was as sci-fi as a tricorder. If they wanted to see a movie a second, third or fourth time, they’d have to seek out the local second-run theater. When VCRs emerged, they thankfully educated me in the “Lucasberger” classics, but I still wish that I got to see those movies when they were new. The Big Screen mattered more then, and that is a vital part of why those movies are so beloved.
Back to “Super 8.” The screening I attended was at 8:15pm, on the movie’s third Saturday in theaters. It was projected on one of the multiplex’s mid-sized screens, and the place was packed, with many people struggling to find a seat after the lights went down. Interestingly, for a movie primarily concerning the plight of middle-schoolers, more than half of the audience members were in their forties. These are the same people who were awed by Spielberg as children. My guess is that they were all feeling nostalgia for those early days at the movies, when fantastic things emerged from summer night skies and your best friends were there to witness them with you.
Eventually, I did find my own band of “Super 8” kids at a summer filmmaking program when I was seventeen. And like the kids in the movie, we used monster make-up, fake blood, and stolen shots to make our own goofy visions. We had a lot of fun doing it, and many of us still do it today in one way or another. “Super 8” remembers what it is like to find your tribe, however unusual it might be, and how wonderful it feels. I hope all my movie freak friends go see it.