Directed by J.J. Abrams
“J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg join forces in this extraordinary tale of youth, mystery, and adventure. ‘Super 8’ tells the story of six friends who witness a train wreck while making a Super 8 movie, only to learn that something unimaginable escaped during the crash. They soon discover that the only thing more mysterious than what it is, is what it wants.”
“Super 8” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.
**SPOILER WARNING** – This review will discuss spoilers from “Super 8,” so my recommendation is to go see the movie first, then come back and read this review. Proceed ahead at your own risk!
I’ve heard “Super 8” described as a mix of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”, “Goonies” and “Cloverfield”. After having seen it, I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description. You have the group of colorful young friends from “Goonies” on an adventure. You have the alien stranded on earth from “E.T.”. And you have the battle between the military and the spider-legged alien going on amidst the background of the smaller character drama like in “Cloverfield”. I think if you liked any of those movies, then “Super 8” is a film you’re going to want to check out.
I’ve seen “Super 8” both criticized and praised for the sense of nostalgia it evokes. Pencil me in the pro-nostalgia’ camp. I grew up in that late 70’s / early 80’s era, so there was a lot in this film that I identified with. I liked seeing the little electronic football game I used to play with, the early Sony Walkman, the “Star Wars” posters in the background, and hearing “My Sherona”. While it would be very easy to accuse J.J. Abrams of desperately playing the nostalgia card in both the setting and the Spielberg-ian feel of the subject matter, it didn’t come across like that to me. They seemed more like fun nods to the era and material, but it didn’t dominate the central story of the friends.
As far as the friends went, I identified with that, too. My friends and I made cheesy home movies as well, albeit on VHS rather than Super 8 film. I had a friend that was a pyromaniac and set things on fire. I had a friend that was bossy, one that was fat, one that had tragedy in his life, and one that was a geek. We also had the tomboy girl that ran around with us and joined in on our adventures. So as far as I was concerned, J.J. Abrams hit the nail on the head in creating a realistic group of friends that I could identify with.
The cast of “Super 8” really brought these characters to life. I think the fact that they are mostly newcomers helped add to the authenticity of their performances. They didn’t bring the excess baggage of recognizable faces in with them. But there’s no doubt they’ll be recognizable after “Super 8”. Joel Courtney is a great lead as Joe Lamb. He brings childlike enthusiasm to the role along with the sad, depressed feeling of a child who had lost their closest parent. He’s a great every-kid’. And as he blushes at the sight of Elle Fanning as Alice, the audience can’t help but be brought back to memories of their own first crush. Fanning and Courtney have great chemistry together. Fanning also delivers the best performance of her short career. She, too, has fun being one of the boys and shooting films with them, yet she also is on the brink of being an adult which comes into her performance. As for the rest of the cast, Riley Griffiths as Charles is this film’s “Chunk” while the rest of the boys also have memorable moments. Kyle Chandler is also great as Deputy Lamb. It would be very easy for him to be the bad guy in this film, but his performance never veers in that direction. I identified with the kids in this movie, but I also identified with Chandler as an adult and a parent. It was a unique experience for me to identify with characters on both sides of the coin.
“Super 8” takes its sweet time building up to the eventual reveal of the alien. And though we don’t even get a good look at it until well into the movie, it was still a satisfying build-up. I was fully on board with the mystery of it all. And when the alien is finally revealed, it’s a unique design that’s both horrifying and noble at the same time.
Be sure to stay through the credits in order to see the final results of the kid’s movie. It’s a great and amusing epilogue to the film.
Right off the bat I have to mention the lens flare. Abrams got a lot of attention for it in “Star Trek” and he acknowledged that he may have gone overboard with it. So when it did appear in “Super 8”, it was quite distracting and actually ripped me out of the narrative. There were large blue streaks across the screen right on the actors’ faces, so you couldn’t help but notice it. It almost comes across as an “I’ll show them!” from Abrams.
I’ll also mention that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending. It was missing .something, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. After all, Abrams neatly wrapped up every sub-plot, answered every question, and generally had a neat and tidy ending. After many hours of pondering the problem, I think I can point to one thing the alien wasn’t developed as a character enough. Yes, we are given clues to his origins, his motives, and his powers. But we are no closer to understanding him or bonding to him as a character than we were the monster in “Cloverfield”. The alien is truly a force of nature in the background and the spotlight is entirely on the kids in the foreground. But what was the alternative… that the alien hide in the kid’s house among stuffed animals? That he’s a cuddly and misunderstood friend from the stars? You do that and you’re suddenly regurgitating the plot of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”. The plot of “Super 8” is probably the more realistic one if an alien was stranded on our planet, but the lack of a connection between the lead characters and the alien is a tad unsatisfying. I think Abrams needed another 15 minutes of running time to let the audience bond with the alien more.
While on the subject of the alien, I’m not sure what my expectations were. Aliens tend to come in three categories benevolent (but possibly misunderstood), malevolent, or animalistic. The “Super 8” alien is kind of a mix of all three. The fact that he’s locked up by the government makes him sympathetic, so you’re rooting for him to get away. He’s also telepathic, so he makes some human friends along the way. But then he kills people in violent ways and kidnaps people, so you think he’s possibly a bad alien and needs to be stopped. (Although E.T. could have been forgiven for killing a couple of government agents along the way.) On the animalistic side, the alien is even shown eating a human being at one point. (Note to NASA if we ever make first contact with aliens, don’t let your astronauts eat the locals. It’s bad public relations with the aliens.) So the audience is kind of left confused .do I like this alien? Do I want to see him killed? Is he an animal that needs to be taken out back and shot? You never settle in on an answer, but maybe that was Abrams’ point.
I’ll add a note on Kyle Chandler as Deputy Lamb. For most of the film, he’s a great and relevant character to the plot. However, by the end of the movie he’s a real non-player. It’s disappointing to see his role diminish in the finale. Overall I loved “Super 8”, but I think the last 1/10 of the film was a bit of a letdown after a fantastic buildup.
One final thing .I had hoped to be able to take my young kids to “Super 8”. After all, I let them watch “The Goonies”, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and other films that “Super 8” derives inspiration from. But after seeing it, I’m glad I left them at home. There’s a lot of language in it. Charles says ‘s**t’ every 5 minutes, and one character drops their one allotted PG-13 f-bomb. Then the monster is also pretty scary in parts. It jumps out at people, kills others in a splash of blood, and is seen eating human limbs at one point. Unless you want to pay for years of therapy along with that buttered popcorn, I’d suggest leaving kids under 10 at home.
“Super 8” is a fun ride and an exciting sci-fi film. It’s a great and different addition to what has proven to be a fantastic summer for movies. Definitely check it out.
Also included is “Deconstructing the Train Crash”. It’s an interactive feature where you can see the creation of the train scene from script to final effects. It’s interesting, but the interface is so clumsy and tedious that I got bored with it quickly. Rounding out the bonus features are 12 minutes of deleted scenes and an audio commentary.