Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb
Kyle Chandler as Deputy Lamb
Elle Fanning as Alice
Riley Griffiths as Charles
Ryan Lee as Carey
Zach Mills as Preston
Gabriel Basso as Martin
Ron Eldard as Louis
Noah Emmerich as Colonel Nelec
Katie Lowes as Tina
Marco Sanchez as Hernandez
Thomas F. Duffy as Rooney
James Hébert as Deputy Talley
Directed by J.J. Abrams
It’s 1979 and in the small town of Lillian, Ohio, a group of friends have decided to make a Super 8 film to enter in a contest. Four months earlier, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) lost his mother in a terrible accident at the steel mill but he agrees to help his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make an amateur zombie film when he learns his pretty classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) will appear in it. When the group of kids witness a horrible train crash, mysterious things start happening around town as the military show up to contain the situation.
(**Spoiler Alert!** If you don’t want to know exactly what is inside that train that instigates all those strange happenings in town, you may want to skip past the fifth paragraph below this one.)
2011, the proverbial “Year the Aliens Invaded,” continues with a collaboration between two filmmakers who have a great deal of experience with the subject matter, director J.J. Abrams producing “Cloverfield” and producer Steven Spielberg directing classics like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T. the Extraterrestrial,” as well as a remake of “War of the Worlds.”
Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing, and it permeates every frame of “Super 8″ as J.J. Abrams tries to create something as relevant and memorable as “E.T.” Anyone who grew up in the ’80s will be able to immediately relate to the suburban setting Abrams has created in which we’re introduced to Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his father, Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler), as they mourn the woman of the house. Four months later, they’re both trying to get thorough it, but Joe’s father doesn’t approve of him spending time with Charles, a would-be Hitchcock always trying to get the most production values out of his amateur films. When the friends sneak out at night to film a scene for Charles’ zombie flick at a train station, they witness a horrendous crash.
Part of the mystery behind “Super 8″ is what exactly is unleashed from that train crash and after a few locals are attacked in a few “horror movie moments,” Abrams pulls the pace back to continue developing the relationships between characters, particularly Joe and Alice, which seems like a fairly innocent first crush, but there is another connection between them that adds to the tension. The military presence in town is used in a similarly effective way as “The Crazies” creating conflict between Joe’s father with the Noah Emmerich-led special forces.
Abrams has found a strong group of mostly unknown young actors who are all convincing enough portraying kids of that era, especially in times when they’re just horsing around. Elle Fanning is clearly the most experienced and she does a lot to carry her scenes with Courtney, though her character isn’t that consistent, acting bitchy towards Joe in their first scene because his father is a police officer and then she almost immediately changes her demeanor and attitude towards him as they start shooting the movie. Kyle Chandler gives a suitably strong performance for his side of the story, facing the Noah Emmerich-led military. By comparison, Ron Eldard gives the weakest performance as Alice’s alcoholic father, creating a character that isn’t quite on par with others.
Roughly halfway into the movie, we get to see the creature which looks like a far more evolved and menacing take on the “Cloverfield” monster, and the CG to create it stands up to a number of impressive set pieces which leads to a suitably climactic finale. Aside from his penchant for lens flares–and seriously, he seems to be doing it more to annoy than as an artistic statement at this point–Abrams has made a really slick-looking film, knowing exactly how to frame each scene for the most impact, whether it’s a quiet dialogue scene or those action-driven set pieces.
What really holds “Super 8″ back at times is that it feels like Abrams is pandering to the viewer’s emotions, unduly trying to stir up feelings when it comes to Joe getting over his mother’s death, an important aspect of the character but one that’s overstated and taken way too far. Composer Michael Giacchino is right there to enable him with the type of string arrangements we might see in a Spielberg movie, but what worked in the early ’80s doesn’t necessarily work today, so one wonders why Abrams felt the need to dilute the strong performances by making the dramatic scenes feel more saccharine. Similarly annoying is Abrams’ incessant homages to his producer with so many blatant visual references to Spielberg’s filmography from “Close Encounters” to “Jurassic Park” you’re likely to be rolling your eyes by the end with how many direct shots are swiped from Spielberg’s movies. It makes what felt like a genuinely original idea feel far too derivative.
That’s not to say that Abrams’ proclivity for tapping into nostalgia entirely hurts the movie; his choice in period music like Blondie and the Cars greatly enhances the enjoyment, for instance. Even so, it doesn’t help seeing the movie shortly after Joe Cornish’s “Attack the Block,” which tackles a similar subject matter with far less reverence making for an experience far better suited for summer entertainment. It’s also strange this is coming out a week before the Spielberg-produced TNT show “Falling Skies” which also creates drama within humans battling aliens, sometimes more effectively with a far more limited budget.)
The Bottom Line:
“Super 8″ thrives on nostalgia and Abrams’ admiration for all things Spielberg, but the results are as aggravating as they are satisfying, especially when the pace is dragged down by Abrams’ attempts to stir up emotion and over-develop his characters.