“It needs to have a story.” Those words are, more or less, what Joe Lamb’s best friend Charles tells him after he’s decided his zombie film needs something more so that it can compete with the older kids’ films in the Super 8 Film Festival. This “something”—a story—conveniently involves casting the girl Charles likes as the lead character’s wife. The older kids are “like, sixteen-year-olds”; the setting is an old train station, as close as these middle school filmmakers can get to a real set; the zombie makeup and fake blood are Joe’s, something he learned to do from a do-it-yourself monster movie makeup guide and his experience painting model trains. Joe, Charles, and their friends’ filmmaking endeavors are endearingly amateur. But Charles’s argument isn’t: they can’t just make a monster movie if they really want to make something good. Their movie needs more than guts, gore, and fake blood: it needs a relationship between characters to show that they are people, to make viewers care whether they live or die. It needs a story.
Like Super 8’s child director/producer, J.J. Abrams and Stephen Spielberg clearly realize that their film needs to be less a monster/action/alien/suspense movie and more a story. Super 8 is, of course, an action film (the train crash sequence toward the beginning of the film is particularly awesome). It also has (spoiler alert) an alien, monsters of various species (some of them human), and suspense. But one of the film’s main strengths is its continual refusal to make special effects sequences the center of its storyline.
Instead, the characters, their relationships, and the larger community of Lillian, Ohio take center stage. The film doesn’t open with a tantalizing glimpse of an alien landing—it starts in a steel factory, and viewers watch as one worker changes the numbers on the “days without accident” sign from 748 to 1. The next shot shows the result of that accident: Joe Lamb’s house, where family and friends have gathered after his mother’s funeral. Before we even meet our main characters, the inhabitants of Lillian whom we’ll be following around for the next two hours or so, we see a community mourning the loss of one of its members.
The opening of the film sets us up for later scenes, after (spoiler alert) the townspeople of Lillian are forced from their home, which has become a veritable war zone. As I watched the main characters dodge down streets overwhelmed by tanks and lit only by fires (the alien, like aliens are wont to do, has stolen all the power lines), I was struck by how painful every burning home or destroyed sidewalk was. When the side of a house that Joe, Charles, and their fellow young filmmakers have hidden in is blown out, the blow is as crippling as the broken leg one of the boys receives when it happens. Here is not a set piece being awesomely blown up—here is part of a community being destroyed.
Because Abrams makes us so invest ourselves in this town and these characters, the film is able to transcend its own genre and communicate something beyond what could have been a tried, tired, and trite plotline. That is, I think, one of the most significant ways in which a film (or any piece of art that tells a story) can mesh with Christian ideas about how, exactly, we can communicate truth through story: Super 8 does not reduce itself to the dogma of genre tropes or pin a loose, unevenly woven fabric of a plot to several key, interminable, and high-budget action sequences. Rather, viewers see something true about human beings in the characters’ responses to death, to adolescence, to young love, to events larger than they’ve previously understood—and, yes, even to the alien and the stranger.
Granted, the film has its faults. The alien plot line is simplistic compared to the richness of the lives of the characters (and sometimes annoyingly reminiscent of E.T.). The film is also quite predictable if you happen to be among the genre savvy. Other viewers, Christian and not, would likely also object to the way some of the boys seem to always be trying to pack as many words their parents wouldn’t approve of as they can in every sentence (I’m pretty sure I did the same thing when I was 12, though). But the story the film tells pulls it out of that generic mire. I’d compare it to E.T. favorably: Super 8 is a film about a boy who helps an alien only to find himself, his friends, his family, and his home.