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A good story in 'Super 8'

Bad Robot/Amblin
"Bad things happen, but you can still live."

~Joe Lamb, Super 8

We missed Super 8 last summer, so when J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi flick came out on DVD and OnDemand this week we jumped at the chance to see it—and it didn’t disappoint. Set in the late 70s, this engaging tale unfolds from the perspective of Joe Lamb (whom we first meet at the funeral for his mother who died in a mill accident) and his small cadre of middle-school friends making a zombie film--and then witness by chance a massive train crash that unleashes a string of mysterious and dangerous happenings in their small town. In many ways, it felt like watching Goonies (a 1985 film also produced by Steven Spielberg) for the first time—only Super 8 has a little more depth that brings some God-talk into these open spaces.

Both Goonies and Super 8 capture a strong sense of 70s nostalgia and an edgy innocence that seemed to slip away with the 80s (or maybe it was simply that I grew up).  All through elementary school, I rode my bike home from school because everyone else did; our parents were more concerned that we’d obediently come straight home from school without detours to a friend’s house than they were about child predators.  And while darker, larger events and issues leaked through the black and white images on the television and conversations shared between my parents and their friends, adults were at the periphery of a world that was dominated by my messy room, school, friends, Shaun Cassidy, those innocent flutters of childhood crushes and first loves, novels and notebooks scribbled full of stories and poems. Goonies and Super 8 capture the nostalgic sense of that era well.

But one of the things I liked best about Super 8 was one of the things I liked best about Goonies: the transforming power of authentic friendship, love and community. Like Goonies, the makeshift efforts of a disparate group of kids in Super 8 rights everything at the end of the story and the community is the better and stronger for it. As a result, the kids are more deeply integrated into that community—one that, for all its messiness and brokenness, is one where they are loved, needed, and a valuable part.

In both films, it is through the least, the weakest, the wounded, the ones at the margins that new life is resurrected into a community again—but even more so in Super 8 than Goonies. Forgiveness is given, relationships are mended, and life is restored in spite of the pain and loss that ruptured it. That all this is ushered in through those on the margins of society is more than a small echo of a much deeper truth we see play out all through Scripture, where we watch God work through the ones we least expect to advance his plan to restore a broken world and broken relationships to the wholeness we were intended for.

I also loved the commentary on filmmaking and story throughout the film—what it takes to believe in a story, the creative process as a mess and genius, the impact of a community of artists on one story and how story and life weave together. The best stories are born of our lives and wounds, hearts and imaginations—and they are often collaborative efforts. And sometimes those efforts are besot by seeming catastrophe which, in the end, can make the story better. (I couldn’t help but wonder if this isn't a reflection of how Spielberg felt directing Jaws, a classic example of this.)

But I think Todd Hertz gets at the appeal of Super 8 best—at least for me—in his review at Christianity Today
But it's clear that Super 8's focus is not the destination of the plot; it's the journey of the characters. Because of that center—and its ties to Spielberg's past—the movie displays some traits not often seen in big summer blockbusters: innocence, wonder, simplicity and authenticity. Of course, those qualities are not dead—in real life or the movies—but they have so commonly been replaced by skepticism, worldliness and complexity. That's not to say the movie doesn't have some of the edgier elements of typical youthful adventures... Bad things—horrible events—happen. But through it all, Super 8 maintains a hopeful wonder and a youthful, simple idealism. Unconditional love is as close as your buddy's house. Your parents are your biggest fans (and heroes). Your bike can take you anywhere. And no matter what junk is happening in life, you can still escape into the world of your Super 8 video camera.
Of late, I've too often fallen into skepticism, but this story reminds me of the best of the basics—the power of love, the presence of wonder, and (to turn a phrase from Hertz) no matter what junk is happening in life, you can still escape into the worlds of storytellers like Abrams. There is great power in good stories because they remind us of what’s important and true. In the end, this story reminds me that, yes, bad things happen but you can still live—that you can love and be loved, that ultimately we are held tight in the arms of a Father who whispers, “I’ve got you.” And in a world that has more than its share of skepticism and bad things, that is something I don’t mind being reminded of.