“Rabbi, who sinned–this space alien or his captors–that he was marooned on Earth and had assimilation issues?”
Some version of this classic biblical question lies at the core of Steven Spielberg’s and J.J. Abrams’s incredible new film, Super 8. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough—and this is also the place to stop reading: major spoiler warning. The questions of guilt and fault form the thematic scaffolding of the film. Super 8’s universe adopts the default worldview that life is a closed system of human actions and their natural consequences, and Spielberg and Abrams spend the majority of the movie attempting to push back against this idea of the closed circle. This thread develops at very start, when the mourners at lead character Joe Lamb’s mother’s funeral worry that the father’s limitation will damage or destroy his son. Seconds later, Abrams shows Joe staring at a silver necklace, clearly torn to pieces by his mother’s death. Chronologically, the answer to this grief is Abrams’s cut to the perpetrator, a rough-looking man whose daughter Alice later joins the boys on the zombie movie they’re making. Mr. Dainard is taken away in the cop car and some form of justice seems to be done: although the man has no connection to Mrs. Lamb’s death (yet), Joe’s grief seems to be answered by this punishment. One gets the feeling, however, that all is not yet resolved—the empty look on Joe’s face remains unchanged.
The suffering in Super 8 is largely produced by human sin, and human sin demands punitive justice—this is half of the biblical view of man as expressed in Paul’s writings. Its more compassionate side, however, is Paul’s idea that man is simultaneously a perpetrator of sin and a victim of it—every criminal’s acts are related to the way that he or she has been victimized in the past. Although Mr. Lamb [FNL’s Kyle Chandler!] rejects Alice’s father outright as a scoundrel, Abrams hints throughout the film that his failures as a father and person are borne from his own suffering, limitations, and guilt. One gets the feeling that Deputy Lamb is asking himself, “who sinned, that my wife died?” He finds a superficial answer to this in Alice’s father, and he finds superficial justice in hating him. The thematic climax of the movie, however, arrives when Deputy Lamb assures Dainard that his wife’s death was an accident while they drive to find their missing kids. It is only when this guilt is removed that Mr. Dainard can begin to show Alice love.
How, then, does Joe’s father manage this act of grace? Who succeeded, the deputy or another, that he can forgive a man partially responsible for his wife’s death? The answer is no one: it is a set of purely gratuitous, accidental circumstances that force the two men together. Just as the wife’s death was a gratuitous accident, so too is the deputy’s willingness to forgive borne completely of external circumstances. Grace in alien invasions, if you will. The crisis of their missing children and the deputy’s need for Dainard’s help force them into a genuine reconciliation and endow Alice’s father with genuine forgiveness. It isn’t from a position of strength or love that the deputy offers grace, but rather from one of weakness and desperation.
Abrams pulls a masterstroke by unifying all of these themes, the search for an answer to suffering and divine gratuity, in one symbol. I’m referring, of course, to the silver locket which simultaneously embodies both the tragedy of his mother’s death and the possibility of grace in Joe’s suffering. The woman’s entire body was crushed by a steel beam, and yet the locket somehow survived. This instance of logic-defying grace gives Joe a boon which both aids him in his suffering and condenses the symbolic matrix of suffering and hope for redemption into a single object. It represents the hope of further gratuity for Joe—for good things that shouldn’t happen and yet still do. Things like camera film surviving a train derailment, the attention of a formerly out-of-his-league girl, or the reconciliation of two men who spent a long time hating each other.
Joe’s search for the cause of suffering seemed at first to be answered via the demonization of the perpetrator (aka Mr. Dainard) and the assignment of blame. This answer functions within a closed-circle dynamic by assuming that all things must have their origin in human action, human morality, and human agency. Such faultfinding is in reality no different than the Air Force colonel’s, who views his struggle with the alien as something totally under his control and subject to a purely human, purely immanent calculus. The redemption of this struggle, however, lies not in the oppressive machinations of the Air Force but in the scientist’s self-sacrificial revelation that the wrathful alien in fact harbors no malice but wants only to forgive the humans who have sinned against him.
Some might object that human agency and goodness do indeed redeem the world of Super 8, as evidenced in Joe’s ability to approach the alien without fear. I reply, in Lutheran fashion, that he was cornered underground (again by accident—sheer gratuity) and utterly at the end of his rope. Redemption for the town comes in and through human limitation and gratuitous accidents, not human striving and willing. You might again object that Dr. Woodward had the wisdom to recognize the alien’s beneficence and the mettle to derail the train, which itself enabled everything else. But how did Woodward find out the truth of the alien? “I was touched,” he says. “And as soon as it touched me, I knew.”
In light of this limited agency, Joe’s decision to let the locket go at the end of the movie makes sense. Indeed, it is the moment when the religious parallels in Super 8 find concrete reality. In giving up the locket, Joe recognizes the finality of his mother’s death and releases the main crutch that is preventing him from dealing with his pain. In taking this risk, in releasing the familiar, he gives himself into the hands of a dynamic, ek-static relation to the world in which his comforts and enjoyment come not from what he controls or the familiar given, but from without. Not only can Joe receive and cling to the grace he’s been given, but also he can release this grace in expectation of more: the final answer to his mournful search. This radical act of trust frees him from his need to find answers and allows him to accept new grace—the spectacle of the ship launch, which unites the community finally as passive onlookers, and the inexorable hand-clasp with Alice (kudos to Abrams for not overdoing it there).
Two disclaimers in conclusion: first, I don’t believe that Abrams assigns no place to human agency—only that his movie takes a dim view of it, and that the underlying drama doesn’t ultimately hinge upon it. The characters certainly have some free will, but they do not have the ability to achieve such acts as forgiving one’s father, helping out an alien (OT pun intended), or forgiving someone for his role in a wife’s death. They all have free wills, but all are, to a degree, bound by their extreme personal limitations. As a second disclaimer, it may seem as if this interpretation goes too far in its view of the sinner as victim and doesn’t assign enough guilt—maybe Mr. Lamb should’ve been able to forgive Dainard without an alien attack? I can only reply that most moviegoers have precious little need to be reminded of their identity as sinners—no one is an Antinomian, and Mr. Dainard certainly didn’t need further condemnation. Abrams’s Super 8 may have a Pelagian [alien]ology, but its acknowledgement of and eventual embrace of redemptive gratuity amidst human limitation hits dead on the money.