In a summer dominated by sequels, capes, lanterns and upcoming shields, it should come as a shock that one of the best movies of the year has the word “super” in it but not a single person can fly, well not on their own. J.J. Abrams goes back to the past, but not totally retro, in the long awaited Super 8.
Like a parent who takes the gift-giving in Christmas very seriously, writer-director J.J. Abrams is the master of hiding things, particularly in boxes. However, it’s hard to argue with the wait when the payoff comes comes with such a big bow.
The year is 1979 and the steel town of Lillian, Ohio has just suffered the loss of one of it’s own. A factory accident claims the wife of Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), a tragedy that makes townsfolk doubt Lamb’s parenting skills even as he arrests someone at the funeral’s wake. After months of mourning, the father struggles to connect with son Joe (Joel Courtney).
Part of the reason is because Lamb wishes his son wouldn’t constantly hang out with his friends shooting a film in (you guessed it) Super 8. Led by the chubby and impatient Charles (Riley Griffith), Joe along with the junior pyromaniac/explosives expert Carey (Ryan Lee) set out to complete Charles’ zombie film in time to enter a film competition.
When stunning lead actress Alice (Elle Fanning) steals her dad’s car to take the crew to a train station, both actor, director and makeup artist Joe take turns falling for her, just in time to witness a truck veer into an oncoming train. The near deafeaning explosion sends train parts flying and the kids running for cover.
In typical Stand By Me style, the kids investigate and find their science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), busted up but healthy enough to tell them at gunpoint, not to discuss or tell anyone what happened or they and their parents would be killed by “them”. The only clue to the mysterious cargo is boxcar full of silvery looking Rubik’s Cubes of which Joe decides to take one. Only the young director heeds that advice, because warnings from gun wielding teachers only carry so much weight apparently with middle schoolers.
The crash brings out the Air Force led by the slightly sinister Nelec (Noah Emmerich), who seems determined to get back whatever was in the train while erasing anything (or anyone) related to it. Before long, Lamb and Nelec cross paths as Joe and his pals get closer to what was on the train. Lillian residents start to go missing, lights mysteriously start to flicker and dogs start to head for the hills (so much for man’s best friend). Before long, the town is under siege by the military and the missing alien cargo as Lamb, Joe and his crew race to find out which is the bigger danger.
As much an homage to producer Steven Spielberg as to the time period, Abrams both captures and openly adores a certain moment of sweet chaos about 5 minutes before puberty hits when girls were considered pretty instead of hot and best friends weren’t besties or BFFs. What could’ve been E.T meets Cloverfield meets Stand By Me is actually all those things and more.
The Spielberg trademarks of the child from a broken home and the E.T. bike sequences aren’t just familiar colors on the camera, they also whisper a song of innocence that Abrams succeeds in capturing and running with. From the casting of age appropriate unknowns to his own trademark over the top explosion sequences, a lot of care was taken to make this film as genuine to his vision as it was to his mentor’s welcome supervision.
Conflicted relationships overtake CGI on the menu as the director holds off revealing the alien until the last possible moment. Whether it’s the friendship turned rivalry between Joe and Charles or the budding friendship on the verge of romance between Alice and Joe, Abrams makes a smooth transition between them as he takes turns wearing both writer and director hats.
The alien; however, is a bit unimpressive when finally revealed, mainly because after all the buildup, we really don’t find out enough about him or his people. He does wreak enough havok to be taken seriously though. Maybe that was Abrams plan all along, to make an old school monster movie where the monster doesn’t get top billing.
Trailer embedded teasers have gone from novel to cheap gimmick, but you’ll kick yourself with both feet if you leave the theater without staying for what comes after the final scene. Consider it a reward for good behavior for being patient enough to wait to see what was inside the box.
Although Abrams should be commended for making an excellent film, Super 8 is the Spielberg film fans have been missing since E.T., complete with all the family friendliness that made him an icon, but with enough action and things blowing up to make it summer friendly too.
Super 8 is the Spielberg film fans have been missing since E.T., complete with all the family friendliness that made him an icon.