If you routinely avoid big commercial summer films, or science fiction, and thus missed Super 8 last summer, give it an evening when it is released this month on disc. From a great distance, it is a loose remake of Spielberg’s E.T. and even has his name on it as producer. This is ironic because the film gently but devastatingly sabotages everything E.T. was about. Recall that in that film, we see children in a single, working parent, middle class household; separation or divorce are lurking in the background. Baby Boom Mom means well, but she’s so distracted by work and the household is so chaotic that she isn’t even aware of the fact that an alien from outer space has taken up residence in her son’s bedroom. Dad is even more absent, of course. And yet everything works out precisely because the alien brings the love and warmth that the parents have neglected to provide.
All fantasy is wish-fulfillment, Freud says, and as a generation of adults sat next to their kids in theaters getting a warm glow from watching this one, we need to clarify just precisely whose wish-fulfillment this is. It is the guilty Baby Boomer parent’s fantasy, of course. Having just exited the Me Decade and the Divorce Revolution, and entered the Me Plus Money Decade, parents suspected that all was not well at home, and here a fantasy about the ultimate babysitter disguised as the ultimate childhood imaginary friend served to reassure a generation that more money could make up for lost time.
Super 8 gives us the same story, but seen from the children’s perspective. Indeed, it was only because it did this that I realized after the fact that E.T. was written from the parent’s perspective. It also sabotages the all-American assumption that we are all middle class as well. The parents in Super 8 are too busy working to go off and discover themselves at their children’s expense. These are working class, two paycheck households, and lest our collective amnesia about the very existence of the working class get the better of us, the absence of maternal love is due to death by industrial accident (nor is this a focus of indignation at the company whose factory kills Mom: life happens, death happens, we pick ourselves up and keep going). The boy Joe’s grief is understated and dignified and there is never any catharsis that makes it all OK. She’s just dead, Dad tries hard to but can’t replace her, and it’s time for Joe to grow up anyway. I’d have to go back and watch it again, but I don’t recall any hugs or tender moments, not between the generations at least. Nor are the adults evil, well, not most of them, but what they are is powerless. The kids will have to solve their own problems, and mostly, they do.
What about the alien? This is perhaps the only bit of displacement in an otherwise surprisingly frank film, but the alien is neither monster nor messiah. Rather, he is extremely dangerous (a train gets derailed, a minimart trashed, a few people and their pets get eaten) because this is what happens when a fundamentally decent being gets trapped in Area 51 by careerist professional adults and then subjected to systematic, violent abuse. In the end, perhaps it is the creature’s compassion which saves the day, but one suspects that luck and exhaustion play a role too. Anyway, our alien doesn’t primarily want to hurt people even if they richly deserve it; he just wants to get the fuck off of this fucked up planet.
But it’s the kids that are truly amazing. Here it really is the case that The Kids Are Alright. I’ve mentioned the remarkable way that the central character deals with his grief, but there’s more. The kids are all shown trying to make a movie. There are many ways that this could be played, but they are not shown as caught up in narcissistic fantasies of escape and fame. They want to be part of the exciting world of productive, meaningful work. They want to produce the sorts of things that have given them so much enjoyment. They do everything in their power to be as grown up as they can in their approach to the super 8 zombie flick they are making. And the self-referential dimension is important here too: the film you are watching is living proof that this could be the first step toward becoming an adult film maker, J. J. Abrams, say. The solution to their problems will involve growing up and taking responsibility, not regressing and being rescued. The kids are amazing in other ways too: their leader Charles is the “fat kid” and not one fat kid cliche is ever so much as approached. Though not the lead character, he leads the others, dominating them through sheer force of will, ambition and love of what he hopes to produce. Like Joe, he loves the girl Alice, and loses her to him, and he responds to this with great honesty, maturity and, again, dignity. Joe’s love in turn is portrayed with great tenderness. And last but far from least, it is the early stirrings of love and not something else that we are shown, because he ultimately saves her, at great risk to himself. Hell, someone has to, and who better to assume that responsibility than the person who cares about her the most.
In the end, a small image gives us a somewhat pat resolution of the boy’s grief. But the film makes extremely clear that “resolution” is anything but cathartic or transcending: grief is overcome by being outlived. He learns to let go of his dead mother simply by growing up, growing up into the world where he too can work in a dangerous factory and barely get by… or, for some, a world in which, through sheer force of will, one can make art which, disguised as heart-warming nostalgia, contains a quiet dirge for childhood, and an even quieter condemnation of the society that killed it.