Super 8 is J.J. Abrams’ first film to not be a sequel or reimagining. It’s a tale of innocence lost and found; the magic of making movies and an alien creature that may or may not be a monster.
The plot of Super 8 – a group of kids accidentally learn about a monster while shooting a super 8 zombie movie and try to figure what the heck is going on – isn’t really the main reason to see it. We’ve seen it before. What makes Super 8 special is that it combines at least three genres – coming of age, first love and creature feature – in a manner that somehow makes all three fresh and fun.
The budding moviemaker, Charles [Riley Griffiths], is making a zombie movie on super 8 film with the hope of submitting it to a regional film festival. He is not the hero, but it’s his movie that makes everything else possible.
Our hero is Joe lamb [Joel Courtney], Charles’ make-up effects specialist – a gig that connects him to the older [fourteen!] Alice [Elle Fanning]. The two share a connection hinted at in a subtly grim opening scene at a local steel mill and further set up by an incident at the wake for Joe’s mother – which is where we first meet Joe’s father, Deputy Sheriff Jackson Lamb [Kyle Chandler] and catch our first glimpse of Alice’s dad, Louis Dainard [Ron Eldard].
Charles has invited Alice to play the lone female character in his film – the hero’s wife. Joe has a crush on her, a fact that becomes evident the first time we see him look at her – and made even more obvious when he has to apply her makeup for the film.
The kids are shooting a scene at the local train station when a train approaches. Charles, being both smart and canny sees this as an opportunity to upgrade the film’s production value [any time there’s a chance to use the real world in his film, he exclaims ‘production value’ and hustles everyone into position to capitalize].
On this night, however, a truck pulls onto the tracks and causes a spectacular crash. While the kids flee the falling wreckage, Charles’ camera accidentally films something – a spider-like creature that is too far away to see well, but close enough to know that it’s not from around here.
When the army arrives, under the command of the deeply disturbing Nelec [Noah Emmerich], it’s expected, but it’s an arc that comes with the territory and here it’s done better than most.
Super 8 is an homage to kind of smart but family friendly early films of Steven Spielberg [who is a producer here]. It takes a look at a time – 1979 – that seems more wistful and magical now than it ever did while we were living through it. It’s a time when Star Wars [check out the poster half hidden behind the models Joe has built] made science fiction big movie fun, but blockbuster was not quite the ubiquitous descriptive that it is now.
It’s a time when the cutting edge of technology is the Sony Walkman, and it takes three days to develop a roll of super 8 film.
The kids are a cross-section of types – the kid who enlists his friends to make movies; the girl with the alcoholic dad; the kid with the distant dad; the awkward kid [The Big C’s Gabriel Basso] and the guy who likes to play with matches/fireworks [Ryan Lee]. Together, they somehow form a unit that feels organic; a unit that has its own ebbs and flows – its own unique flavor.
Just as Charles’ moviemaking unites the boys; the loss of their mothers gives Joe and Alice common ground. Courtney and Fanning are extraordinarily good at making the couple’s blossoming first love completely believable.
Kyle Chandler projects such a deeply fundamental decency that he is perfect as the dad who is most comfortable keeping his son at a distance since his wife died. We willingly root for him to get his act together.
While the character/emotional beats are what make Super 8 a joy, the creature feature aspect of the film only works because, as the creature is stealing car engines, microwaves and other seemingly unrelated things, we are getting to know the kids.
There are sequences in which the film moves away from the kids and, though they are a bit of a jolt – the transitions seem a bit forced/awkward – they give us information that the kids should not be privy to, while deepening the adult characters.
As events progress, Joe is forced by circumstances to become a hero – and, again, it is because of the kids’ performances that we can buy this without hesitation.
J.J. Abrams knows and loves movies, and here he takes the essence of Spielberg’s early films and filters it through his own sensibility and experiences as a kid moviemaker, to create a world that simultaneously fresh and familiar. He sprinkles jump moments – practical and effects – throughout the film but has the sense to make sure that our reactions are based not just on something jumping out and yelling boo! But also on our feelings for the characters.
If the final act walks the line between nostalgia, heart and the maudlin, Abrams has earned the right to pull off that balancing act from the instant he has Alice show off her acting skills at the train station. That’s one of the film’s most powerful moments – and it was that moment when I knew I was going to see Super 8 again.
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Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures