J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is a love letter to Steven Spielberg. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder of films such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as the Spielberg-produced and storied The Goonies. Another way of describing it would be to say it’s an homage, but if you were to tell me it was found in a 25-year-old time capsule and restored using today’s CGI and Abrams’ now signature lens flares that wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
Marketed with all the same hocus-pocus as Paramount’s Cloverfield, Abrams and Co. have done their best to keep a lid on the film’s plot, or at least they have pretended to keep a lid on it. By watching the trailer you already know this is a late-’70s set creature feature in which a group of kids setting out to make a zombie movie end up capturing, on film, a dramatic train crash as well as a glimpse at whatever monster it was transporting. Blissfully unaware of what their super 8mm camera has seen, as technology back then meant waiting up to five days for your film to be developed, they carry on making their movie, using the Air Force’s investigation into the crash as a way to up their film’s production value.
Both written and directed by Abrams (Star Trek), the film moves along at a brisk pace and succeeds in focusing on the innocence of the children at its core. Seeing the incident at hand through the eyes of the story’s youths, all of which give spot-on performances, we’re given a wide-eyed, anything is possible view of the world, filled with optimism and just as much understanding as confusion.
These kids rebel against their parents wishes, yearn for creative outlets and experience youthful crushes and disappointments. Beyond much else, this is where Super 8 specifically succeeds, as you join the core group of kids’ wonderment at what is going on and what is most important to them. Admittedly, this leaning on the kids’ side of things does have its drawbacks when Abrams feels the need to create additional emotional tension.
Joel Courtney plays the film’s lead character, Joe Lamb, and at the outset we learn his mother has recently died due to an on the job accident at the local steel mill. Both Joe and his father (“Friday Night Lights” star Kyle Chandler), a local police officer, are suffering from their loss, but with a lack of back-story to their relationship (which I’m assuming wasn’t too great) the relationship between the two becomes a bit convoluted and hackneyed.
While helping his best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), put together his zombie film, Joe forms a crush on the film’s new female lead, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the man (Ron Eldard) Joe’s father blames for his wife’s death. Upon hearing the news, Joe’s father forbids him from spending any time with her. This scene is particularly cringe-worthy in its execution as none of it rings true or feels authentic.
For the most part, Chandler’s character does some pretty strange things, none of which are Chandler’s fault as a performer, but more as a result of a script that seems to lack confidence in itself and feels a need to pile on the drama. Abrams, instead, could have taken a cue from Goonies, established the familial problems and left them for the kids to figure out along the way. As in Goonies, the parents can show up at the end for a dramatic “hug it out” moment, considering there’s no real reason for them to be at the center of the story.
However pushing that one misstep aside, Super 8 remains quite fun. You can feel Abrams’ closeness to the material as he obviously made short films of his own as a child, and the excitement and adventure of creating those films is clearly evident. You’ll also be able to connect with the feeling of young love and the jealousy and frustration that comes with it.
For these reasons the creature angle that results in this story being told works as much as it doesn’t. Abrams plays with his creation and holds its identity close to the chest for most of the film’s duration, a move that grows more and more tiresome as time wears on. Giant CG creatures are no longer interesting as they have all started to blend together and this one is no different. So when Abrams finally decides to give us a look into the monster’s soul, it’s a scene that pretty much lands with a soft thud. He should have never had the reveal at all, or done it much, much sooner.
Alternatively, the nearly six-minute train crash sequence at the beginning is loud, long and impressive. And the acting on the part of all of the children is excellent.
I would like to point out Elle Fanning specifically. She showed some chops in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere last year, but here she has something of a moment inside a moment. As the kids are filming their zombie movie she falls into character and gives a performance that not only knocks the young protagonists off their feet, but tells the audience we have a true star on our hands. Aside from some of the fun character quirks of the rest of the cast, Ryan Lee as the fireworks-obsessed Cary was the character I found to be the most fun.
Overall, that last sentence is exactly what Super 8 is and should be: fun. It’s for this reason some of the melodrama Abrams wedged in there doesn’t really work. Luckily, that doesn’t ruin the film as much as it’s the thorn in its paw. Super 8 remains a good dose of entertainment, and while the homage to Spielberg is a bit gimmicky, it’s the kind of film you melt right into, serving as a satisfying two hour distraction.
SIDE NOTE: Don’t feel the need to rush out of the theater and at least stick around for the first five-or-so minutes of the end credits.