By Ted Anthony/ AP
It’s convenient to assign J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8,” one of this summer’s biggest movies, an easy, modular genre: Intrepid small-town kids encounter the unknown, engage it, handle it far better than the adults and find that their emotionally sensitive behavior brings their community salvation. Call it the E.T. Effect.
Look closer, though. “Super 8” is not necessarily about what you think it’s about. At its most basic, Abrams’ homage to the Steven Spielberg in all of us is actually, like much of Spielberg’s work itself, a lyrical screed against the information age and the dark sides of the technology that carries us through our daily lives.
The march of the machines, it tells us, is not the friend we often think it to be.
There’s no more perfect moment in recent history to use as a canvas for this message than the one Abrams chooses — 1979, the year we really started to realize that technology was biting back.
It was the year of the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania — a near-cataclysm referenced in the early moments of “Super 8” — and, not incidentally, the year of “The China Syndrome,” TMI’s fictional equivalent. It was the year that, in the summer, schoolchildren looked to the heavens and wondered if the hobbled space station called Skylab would land on top of them during its operatic fall to Earth, and Voyager I photos showed Jupiter’s rings.
And, from John Frankenheimer’s environmental horror flick “Prophecy” to David Cronenberg’s “The Brood” to Don Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” and Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” it was the year that we returned to 1950s-style movie-house fears — the notion that the weird, metallic, laboratorial works of man might be delivering us to evil, not from it. Even the year’s optimistic space movie, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” featured a plot that showed us the cosmic destruction wrought when machinery goes too far.
Enter “Super 8,” which takes place in a quiet Ohio industrial town in the first half of 1979. Its narrative premise, from the first teaser trailers, has been that the camera captures horrors we might not otherwise see. The sound of a movie projector unspooling its tale is used to great dramatic effect.
No “Wonder Years”-style home movies here, though. The very first scene depicts, in sad silence, the aftermath of an industrial accident at the town’s manufacturing plant — a key character’s loved one torn apart by a malfunctioning machine. A harbinger of the themes to come.
As “Super 8” unfurls (minor spoilers ahead), we see:
• A cop snatched away from a gas pump, and his patrol car torn apart, while a clerk blithely looks the other way because he has the music turned up, listening to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” – on his brand-new, just released Sony Walkman.
• The main characters thwarted by failing power, by unwieldy, multi-knobbed radios that don’t work and by gadgets that keep disappearing from local homes. “Twenty microwaves, gone from my inventory — I want to know who took ‘em,” says one storeowner. “I say it’s the Soviets.”
• Kids in a huge hurry to save the world being delayed by the fact that they have to rely on the physical film from their camera — and wait for it to be developed.
• A federal government that thinks it can defeat an unfamiliar kind of tech with its own clumsy gadgetry — the always mistaken assumption in such films that ends, in this case, with tanks going crazy and destroying big chunks of the town in a two-decades-early Y2K.
The movie’s very backdrop tees up these fears. The isolation and evacuation of Lillian, Ohio, after “the event” is contained and, seemingly, not the instantaneously global event it would be today under the tender mercies of the 24-hour news cycle. As in so many 1950s sci-fi movies, such as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” the town is cut off. While that makes things all the more frightening for the story, it also sets up a chance at heroics for the very unplugged locals, who manage things far better than the technology-reliant military blusterers who come to town.
Turning over the rock and looking underneath Abrams’ work, these attitudes shouldn’t surprise anyone. His epic TV series “Lost” was based on tech failure (a plane crash) and even his take on the microprocessor-happy “Star Trek” (2009) featured a vengeful villain who uses technology he doesn’t completely understand to destroy entire worlds.
But the theme is most obvious in “Fringe,” the alternate-universe science fiction show that Abrams co-created. The central kernel of “Fringe” (a gateway is created to a parallel universe that becomes environmentally calamitous) mirrors, precisely, the message of so many of those 1950s sci-fi flicks: the notion that there are some things in which man was not meant to meddle.
The tech angst of “Super 8,” while more subtle, holds more direct relevance to our lives today.
Because, aside from the fictional central interloper, the makers of “Super 8” got 1979 exactly right and true. The budding filmmaker, the little pyro whose backpack is filled with fireworks of various varieties, the clerk with the Walkman, the teenage stoner who insists that “No one touches my CB” — they are all the children who grew up to build the tech-focused society that now envelops us.
Today they are the reality-show producer, the weapons designer, the music-app code writer and the middle-age suburban guy who doesn’t let his kids use the remote on his new 64-inch, flat-screen TV. In “Super 8,” Abrams takes the Age of Information — our age — and spins back to its roots, to the space-shuttle posters and Mattel Electronic Football devices that formed its foundations in the minds of 1979’s children.
In short, the A/V geeks grew up to rule the world, and hey — we citizens of the attention-deficit Era of Many Screens better take a long, hard look at whether that was a good thing. “I need you to make Alice a zombie,” says the movie’s budding filmmaker to his makeup artist. Well, no need: Three decades on, we’ve done it to ourselves.
Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), the adolescent protagonist, is the exception, the sensitive kid who realizes that amid all of this gadgetry and mechanization, sometimes just being human — being genuinely nice — is the answer. He is America unplugged, and if “Super 8” is any indication, Abrams believes that there’s still great value to that, even today: A fan boy doesn’t need gadgets to prevail.
That probably should have been obvious from the first moment of “Super 8,” when the logo of Abrams’ production company appears. Remember it? “Bad Robot.”