Super 8 is a film about film. It's about a group of kids in the 1970s who, armed with a Super 8 camera (one of the first "home movie" technologies), set out to make a zombie film and inadvertently find themselves filming something even more "movie-like" than zombies. Of course, this then is turned into a film in itself, in the style of Spielberg.
The whole Spielberg homage thing is very fun--and done extremely well--but it's mostly interesting to me in that it immediately (along with the title) casts the film in a self-conscious light. This is a movie about the movies (a topic that always interests me). It's a movie about movies both in the sense that it draws attention to the jaw-dropping spectacle and magic of cinema (like any Spielberg film does), but also in that it seems to examine the cinematic impulse itself: what we do with a camera in our hands, how we tell stories filmically, how "reality" and "nonreality" intermingle in the process, and why we choose to direct the camera at some things and not others.
Just as JJ Abrams' Cloverfield explored the notion of amateur film-making by telling its monster movie tale through the lens of a low-fi camera and average Joe observer taking it all in, Abrams' latest film ruminates on the intersection of scripted and unscripted footage, amateur and professional, high and low tech. In Super 8, the "action" of the kids' film intertwines with the higher-budget "action" of epic train wrecks, military coverups and alien havoc. Tellingly, the kids see the "real" chaos in terms both of their own survival but also a "is the camera still rolling?" documentary impulse. They improvise and incorporate the bigger drama into their own narrative, poaching the disaster movie happening around them and repurposing bits and pieces of it for their own storytelling ends.
In this, Abrams' film reflects the curiosity of our contemporary YouTube landscape--where "raw footage" of whatever sort (disasters, news footage, celebrity gaffes, etc.) can be remixed, re-edited, and put to work to fit the fancy of any number of aspiring auteurs or opinionated pontificators. Like any media form, the moving image has proven to be skillful at both capturing reality as it unfolds as well as capturing the malleability of reality to fit itself within the vision, fantasy, or agenda of whatever artisan maneuvers the media apparatus.
Super 8--with its ubiquitous lens flares and high flying crane shots--doesn't hide the fact that it's sculpting reality in a very particular, non-real manner. It's clear that it is an artificial creation, just like any movie. But that doesn't stop the film from ably pondering its own ontology and asking questions about what we mean when we say things of reality like, "this feels like we're in a movie."
At one point in Super 8, the kids watch on the news the footage of a massive train wreck they were right in the thick of the night before. "It's on the news, so it must be real," says one character.
Indeed, our world is so entirely mediated these days that occasionally something doesn't feel real unless it's shown to us--from 20 different angles--on a screen of some sort. Our immediate perceptions are to be doubted. But the mediated image seems somehow more trustworthy.
Super 8 points out how ridiculous such a scenario actually is, even while it reinforces why the "real" on film can sometimes feel more compelling than the actual real. It's because movies like Super 8 are exciting, invigorating, resonant, and emotionally true. And it's because we increasingly live our lives via screens, images, and media. We trust them more than our own eyes.