Super 8 (2011)
|written by: J.J. Abrams
produced by: Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams & Bryan Burk
directed by: J.J. Abrams
rated PG 13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use)
U.S. release date: June 10, 2011
It’s the summer of 1979 and middle school has just let out for five friends in the small town of Lillian, Ohio. Although it’s a time filled with endless possibilities, young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is still grief-stricken, mourning the recent loss of his mother. He lives with his caring but distant police deputy father (Kyle Chandler), who is pre-occupied with the needs of the town. That’s okay though, because Joe has his mind elsewhere as well, primarily monster make-up, creating miniature models, and Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning). He’s also using his artistic skills to assist life-long buddy, Charles (Riley Griffiths) in making a Super 8 zombie movie. Backed by a stalwart crew, which includes leading man, Martin (Gabriel Basso), explosives expert and cameraman, Cary (Ryan Lee), and actor and lighting supervisor, Preston (Zach Mills), the gang is boosted by some natural talent when Alice joins, who proves to be quite the muse.
One windy night, while filming a dramatic scene at a train stop, the group witness a sudden catastrophic train accident, miraculously leaving them unharmed. The children are shell-shocked, unaware that their camera kept rolling throughout the entire incident, recording the escape of a top-secret creature aboard the train. Instantly, the military is all over the scene, swarming the town in an effort to contain their cargo as well as squash any hysteria. But Joe and his friends know something is up, and they become determined to uncover the truth behind the hostile force which has torn apart their serene town. Along the way, friendships are tested as discoveries are made, not just about the strange happenings, but about themselves.
If anyone was to give us an homage to Spielberg on the big-screen, Abrams is the perfect guy for it. He has provided quality action/adventure and mystery/sci-fi to the small screen with “Alias” and “Lost”, complete with an intact heart and well-realized characters. Then he brought the same vibe to a bigger scale, directing his first two theatrical features, 2006’s “Mission: Impossible III” and 2009’s “Star Trek”, both successfully resuscitating entries to flailing franchises. Abrams brings the same emotional heft, frightening mystery, and intense action, from his previous work to “Super 8”, a spectacularly made film that harkens back to movies we just don’t see anymore.
I’m referring to those summer movies that made you want to race home, hop on your bike, and act it all out with your friends. That’s what I felt growing up with “The Goonies” and “E.T.” and Abrams brought me back to that with this film. Like those films, this one warrants repeat viewings and may also cause you to jolt in your seat or find yourself wiping away tears. That’s because Abrams understands the heartfelt connection Spielberg gave us and brings that to “Super 8”, defining the difference between blatant rip-off and humble tribute.
While he undoubtedly makes it his own, Abrams fills “Super 8” with a good deal of knowing nods to Spielberg that made me grin. The superbly written script showcases dead-on adolescent dialogue straight out of “The Goonies” (or even “Stand by Me”) and the military involvement is reminiscent of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” When Kyle Chandler (so great here) is being pulled every which way by townsfolk with reports of missing car engines and microwaves, it’s hard not to think of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody from “Jaws”. With the creature, Abrams takes cues from both “Jaws” and “Lost”, adopting a “less is more” approach, slowly employing similar action beats from “Jurassic Park” as well as “Cloverfield”, also produced by Abrams.
But then there’s those shots that are all Abrams. When we see Joe post a picture of his missing dog on a public board, and then the camera pans back to show us several other snapshots of missing canines. It’s a scene that drives home the gravity and scope of the unraveling mystery. Abrams is good at those reveals that show instead of tell, just as he is at poignant scenes of human interaction. Like when Joe is instructing Alice how to act like a zombie or especially when Deputy Lamb is driving with Alice’s screw-up father, Louis (Ron Eldard), as they search for their kids. That latter scene would’ve played to stereotype with any other director, but between Abrams’ script, his directing choices, and the decisions the actors make, we’re treated to a powerful scene of humility, grace, and forgiveness.
“Super 8” boasts outstanding special effects, primarily in the amazing train crash sequence, but it’s the talented young cast that makes this movie great. Other than Fanning, who is excellent, these relative newcomers are “mint” (as bossy director Charles would say), showing no sign of acting or camera-mugging. Courtney gives an especially solid performance to a character that could’ve been overly morose or predictable, but instead we see an honest, wide-eyed purity in him that is a rare find. Whether they are running for their life from flying debris or hanging out at the local diner, each of these kids portray real people. They’re just like you and I were back in the day, trying to be who we are while dealing with the harsh realities of the world.
Abrams doesn’t slight the adult characters though here either, as so many kid-centric movies often do. He gives Chandler a valuable opportunity to show vulnerability in his role as father and even gives him some action hero bits to revel in. It’s also good to see character actor, Noah Emmerich (he’s become “that guy”) as the commanding Air Force colonel in charge of cleaning up the mess and keeping intel Top Secret. While this clearly is a story about children, it’s nice not to have the clueless or uncaring adults using up space.
The story benefits from a pre-internet setting that forces on human interaction and connection. At times, the movie makes one too many obvious acknowledgments to this (hey, look….a walkman!) but maybe for some viewers, that’s a needed nod. Regardless, this would be a completely different movie if it took place in the present. Sure, pre-teen pressures exist today, but that age of wonder is all but gone thanks to modern technology.
To keep you spoiler-free, I’m glossing over the creature lurking in “Super 8”, but mainly because that’s not what the movie is about. In the third act, Abrams reveals a somewhat unsuccessful tone to the creature, when more is revealed about the creatively designed monster, but, that may just be me. It doesn’t stop Abrams, with his signature cinematic lens flares, from presenting us with a fantastic, heart-swelling finale. I intend on revisiting this again soon, if for no other reason than to escape to a time when Starlog was still in print and kids raced around with flashlights in their backpacks.