Thursday, May 17, 2012

Super 8 -- innocence, mothers, and bad things

Director: J. J. Abrams, 2011. (PG-13)

Ah, for the good old days of the late 70s and early 80s, when life was simpler and innocence was not yet lost, and blockbusters had Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints all over them, such as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET. Well, with Spielberg producing this movie, Super 8 is like a trip down memory lane. Director J. J. Abrams (Star Wars) takes us back to those days, creating a movie that is so reminiscent of Spielberg at his best, yet not quite rising to the bar set by that most influential of film personalities.

Set in small town Ohio in 1979, the film is an intertwining of two stories. One focuses on six middle-schoolers who are making a zombie-movie on their super-8 video camera for a film festival competition. The other zooms in on the town itself as mysterious things start happening. But it is the character-based journey of the kids that sparkles.

The film starts with a wake. Young Joe (Joel Courtney) has lost his mother, and his father Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler) doesn’t really know how to relate to him. Anyway, he is too caught up in his job as one of the town cops. This short scene sets the tone.

Moving forward several months, we find Joe and his friends intent of their movie-making. These are kids innocent and carefree, unencumbered by responsibility. Needing to add emotion to their story, the young director Charles (Riley Griffiths) decides to add a wife to the detective. He approaches Alice (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s sister) to drive them to the railroad station at midnight for the shoot, not telling her what he really wants. When there and asked, she does agree and one of the magical scenes in the film takes place. She delivers a phenomenal performance with little preparation, bringing tears to eyes and dropping jaws in the process. But as suddenly as the scene occurs, immediately a train wreck happens. Staged completely with cgi, this is the mother of all train wrecks, going totally over the top.

Escaping to prevent notice, they are surprised to find it is an army train. And the train was carrying a mysterious cargo. When the military descends on the town, the inhabitants accept it with a naivety born of the 50s. Today’s cynical citizens would demand more explanation, but not here. Yet, even as the military extend their reach, the boys continue their film-making and look on with awe.

One of the themes of the film is the innocence and wonder of youth.  This is captured beautifully in the performances of the young actors, especially the two leads Courtney and Fanning. Undisturbed by all around them, they can look at life and enjoy what they see. Life is still an exciting adventure for them. 

Today’s teens sadly have been tainted by too much television and technology. We no longer see this kind of innocence and wonder in young people this age. It still resides in elementary schoolers, but even that is disappearing.  The age of innocence is dwindling too rapidly.

Children, or in this case young teens, have an innate sense of wonder and innocence. Luke tells us, “Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these’ “ (Lk. 18:16). In another context, Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). We must bring this child-like wonder to our relationship with God. We must discard our grown-up sense of doubt or distrust, even guilt, and look on Jesus with awe. Truly, he is worthy of worship as we worship him in spirit and in truth.

A second theme emerges from Joe and Alice’s relationships. Not so much theirs, although they are clearly drawn to one another, even if she fights it. Rather, the impact of the loss of their mothers. While Joe’s mother has died, Alice’s has departed leaving her with her dropout dad Louis (Ron Eldard). Both have suffered from one-parent homes where the father is falling down on the parental job, either due to laziness or due to workaholism.

Children need both parents. The nuclear family is not just a nice concept, it is God’s ideal from the very start (Gen. 1-3). When the mother is absent, the nurturing and feminine side is lost. When the father is preoccupied, children are forced to fend for themselves, putting on them responsibilities too early. Innocence can be lost, or relationships with the opposite sex can be damaged. Mothers play an important role in the upbringing of their offspring. Even if that has changed over the last thirty years, it is still so important to have a balance of parental influences.

After the train wreck, inexplicable events start taking place. People disappear. Property is damaged or destroyed. The army, under Nelec’s command (Noah Emmerich), comes to clean up, but they are hiding their true motivation. Bad things start happening. Indeed, Joe tells one character toward the end, “Bad things happen. But you can still live.”

For an innocent kid, this is a pearl of wisdom. Life is not fair, yet it is good. Bad things happen to good people as well as to bad ones. There is often no distinction. Jesus tells us that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Whatever may befall us, life still goes on. And we can trust God when he says, through the Apostle Paul, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). The “all things” includes the things which seem bad from our perspective but which are used by God to mature and perfect us, ultimately being “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs 

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