(by Dustin Putman
Steven Spielberg's producing credit aside, it is not by mere coincidence that "Super 8" arrives with the classic Amblin Entertainment production logo at the top of the film. Melding a nostalgic coming-of-age story involving childhood friendships, first loves and familial discord with a bigger-than-life, otherworldly adventure, the picture, written and directed by J.J. Abrams (2009's "Star Trek"), is nothing if not an affectionate tribute-cum-throwback to such great similar-minded films of the past as 1982's "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and 1985's "The Goonies." Anchoring fantasy in a real-world setting and never forgetting that special effects and sheer spectacle mean nothing if there aren't relatable characters and an emotional thematic throughline to first and foremost care about, Abrams takes the popular Spielberg model—just as 1987's "The Monster Squad" did twenty-four years ago—and runs with it. This isn't some plagiaristic project, however—its story is an original one—but a warmly-felt love letter that embraces the cinematic inspirations which have ultimately brought it to fruition. Does "Super 8" wholly match up to the best that have come before it? No, not quite, but it's certain to go down as one of the most worthwhile and memorable of this year's big-budget summer tentpoles. There's not a superhero in sight, either. Imagine that. Article continues below
12-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has had a tough year. Four months ago, his beloved mother was killed in a tragic steel mill accident, leaving him to be taken care of by a deputy father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), who has never been much of the fathering type. The two of them can't seem to see eye-to-eye—Jackson brings up the idea of Joe going away for the summer to a sports camp, not understanding that his more sensitive son's heart lies elsewhere—and their touchy relationship only gets worse when he befriends Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), her alcoholic father Louis (Ron Eldard) the man Jackson holds responsible for his wife's death. Alice has agreed, much to Joe's and his friends' surprise, to star in the zombie movie aspiring young director Charles (Riley Griffiths) is spearheading. With Joe handling the effects and make-up, pyro enthusiast Cary (Ryan Lee) wielding the camera, and Preston (Zach Mills) and Martin (Gabriel Basso) also acting, the group secretly make their way to the train station late one night to film an important dramatic scene. Charles knows production value when he sees it, and hurries to shoot as a locomotive passes by. What they don't expect is for the train to suddenly crash and for a large and powerful unknown something to escape from one of the freight cars. They're sworn to secrecy about what they've seen by their biology teacher Mr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), who intentionally caused the wreck, then begin their own investigation as weird occurrences start plaguing their town. Dogs and people are going missing. Generators and other electrical equipment are being stolen from under the residents' noses. Power lines are torn down. As enigmatic military personnel move in to get the situation under control, the kids hope that the footage they're anxiously waiting to be developed may shed some light on what is really going on.
"Super 8" is set in the working-class community of Lillian, Ohio, the kind of average but still quaintly picturesque suburban location where one imagines the Freeling family might have lived in 1982's "Poltergeist" had they been one salary bracket lower on the annual wage scale. The time is 1979, vibrantly orchestrated with every miniscule detail the production design by Martin Whist (2010's "Devil") and set decoration by Fainche MacCarthy (2009's "Surrogates") have to offer (love the poster for 1978's "Halloween" in Charles' bedroom, by the way!). Era-specific wardrobe, cars, and music, including songs by Blondie, Electric Light Orchestra, The Commodores, Paul McCartney, and The Knack, are immaculate additions that sell the time period and wistful, "good-old-days" vibe. Also winningly captured is the authentic dynamic between all the young protagonists, their conversations, playful ribbing, and occasional cursing sure to send viewers right back to memories of their own adolescence. Their joy in no-budget, on-the-fly moviemaking—something autobiographical from both J.J. Abrams' and Steven Spielberg's childhoods—is affectionately depicted, too, their continued shooting throughout the narrative paying off in a big way during the can't-miss end credits.
It is often said that the journey, rather than the destination, is the most important part, and this adage certainly holds up in regards to "Super 8." While the film works as a sci-fi thriller of sorts, it is the slice-of-life aspects of the story that most stand up to scrutiny, the emotions and personal dramas between the characters where a lot of the true magic takes place. Two families are effectively and honestly portrayed as in crisis—Joe and Alice both live in depressed, motherless homes—and both culminate in sentimental, if ever so slightly pat, resolutions. The bond between all the guys, particularly that of Joe and Charles, rings with accuracy and depth, while the relationship that builds as Joe and Alice spend time together and grow to understand one another, strengthening all the more in the face of their respective father's feud, is sublime.
It helps, of course, that the performances are so very good. Making their formidable big-screen debuts, 14-year-old Joel Courtney, as the increasingly confident Joe, and Riley Griffiths, as the headstrong, sarcastic—but still endearing—Charles, are simply terrific. Fleeting moments pass by where one can kind of guess they are novices, but that actually helps to pull out their unaffected naturalism. The viewer believes everything they say, do, and feel, and sees their goodness. It's impossible not to rally behind them. As Joe's father Jackson, Kyle Chandler (2005's "King Kong") is hard-edged but not uncaring, the grief he himself is still feeling over his wife palpable. The star of the show, though, is the iridescent Elle Fanning (2010's "Somewhere"), embodying in Alice a young boy's vision of a dream girl while giving her complex layers of resentment, melancholy and sweetness. Every moment Fanning is on the screen her face is able to paint a complete, poignant picture of who this character is and what she's going through. For an actress who was only twelve when this film was made, she is, quite frankly, remarkable.
Less impressively concrete are a few key revelations and a couple creative and developmental points that come off half-formed. A subplot involving the missing dogs of the town falls to the wayside quickly, while the loss of Joe's pet has no impact at all since his relationship with his canine is never adequately set up. Director J.J. Abrams takes the "Jaws" approach and keeps the monstrous villain of the piece out of view for the majority of the running time, building suspense by holding back and teasing the audience by revealing, at first, quick shots of body parts. Once the creature is fully shown in the third act, much of the tension dissipates because of how unimaginatively it is designed and how dimly it is shot. An antagonist from another world is supposed to be frightening beyond belief, but also unique as it stands out as something not quite glimpsed before. What we have here is a clichéd combination of just about every hulking, goopy, multi-tentacled creature seen prior, made even more disappointing by how similar—yet inferior—it is to the alien in 2008's "Cloverfield." Make no mistake; the momentum of the action still excites and sometimes thrills. The letdown is how it could have been significantly more threatening and wondrous had Abrams thought outside the box and put as much care into this element as he did into the rest of the film. The final scene, full of the awe Abrams was aiming for all along, also could have afforded to be drawn out a bit more. As is, it's too rushed by a hair and doesn't quite pay off the romance between Joe and Alice as much as it should have.
"Super 8" isn't immune to being nitpicked, but that is because it's not the beacon of artistic perfection many people have been building it up to be in anticipation of its release. Uneven though the picture is in spots, it's even more special for all that it is and everything it achieves. Writer-director J.J. Abrams exhibits undeniable passion as a filmmaker, and here he brings actual storytelling and complicated, multidimensional characters back to summer blockbusters—all within the confines of immersive 2-D, to boot! The film moves well, rattles one's soul—a late scene involving a necklace is stunning in its subtext—and targets all demographics, so if consumers can get over the shock that there is a well-made popcorn flick playing at the multiplex that hasn't been adapted from a comic book or water ride, this has the makings of a sizable box-office hit. "Super 8" has all the requisite fireworks and pizzazz one expects, but its special weapon—the thing that helps to separate it from the crowd—is how much it cares. For that, Hollywood would be wise to take note.