Super 8 is a real throwback of a summer movie. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought for sure that this was an undiscovered early film of Steven Spielberg’s (albeit one with far superior special effects). Spielberg is merely the producer here, but his influence is felt all over the flick. Writer/director J.J. Abrams is making an homage to that sort of filmmaking, and he succeeds in a big way. With excellent performances from his cast (especially his first timers), a palpable sense of wonder and dread, as well as an overarching valentine to nostalgia and the magic of the movies, Abrams is able to overcome a mixed bag of a script and deliver a film that manages to live up to the hype. Believe it or not, his decision to keep as much of the movie a secret as possible pays off.
Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is a boy coping with the accidental death of his mother in a small Ohio town in the late 70’s. Improperly supported by his well-meaning but gruff Deputy Sheriff father (Kyle Chandler), one of his coping mechanisms is to be the makeup and effects guy for his friend’s Super 8 films. Directed by Charles (Riley Griffiths) with help from friends Cary (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach Mills), and Martin (Gabriel Brasso), they are planning to spend the summer making a zombie movie to enter into a teen film festival.
They score a coup when the lovely older girl Alice (Elle Fanning) agrees to act in the film as well as drive them to their midnight shoot at the train station. Once there, all is going swimmingly until they witness a train derailment. Before they know it, the military has locked down the area and it’s apparent that something strange was in those cars. While the town is slowly having dogs and people go missing, the boys (and girl) continue to shoot their movie, using the paranoia of the town as production value. When it becomes apparent that there’s a menace loose and one of their own goes missing, the boys band together to try and save their friend and solve the mystery of what was on the train. The plot is really two movies in one. We have the story of kids making movies in a small town, and we also have the 50’s style sci-fi flick going on around them. The two plots don’t always merge smoothly, but when they do…oh boy.
The acting isn’t flashy, but it is strong. Top honors goes to newcomer Joel Courtney and emerging star Elle Fanning. Fellow newbie Griffiths does forceful work too as the budding director who doesn’t want anything getting in the way of his art, but Courtney and Fanning give tender and complex performances. Both characters are dealing with loss in their life, and they bond in the way kids that age do. It’s really quite touching to see them come together. Lee, Mills, and Brasso are good as well, and they all have great chemistry together. As the somewhat clueless father, Chandler is very good but the script lets him down on more than one occasion. Solid supporting roles are given to Ron Eldard as Alice’s depressed father and Noah Emmerich as the brutal military man trying to clean up the mess, and there are very small parts for recognizable actors and actresses like Bruce Greenwood, Dale Dickey, and Dan Castellaneta. The quality acting hides some of the flaws in the script and strengthens Abrams’ vision for what he wants this movie to truly be about.
As for Abrams, he’s doing excellent work behind the camera, if only so-so work as a writer. Yes, his trademark lens flares are back, but they aren’t bothersome, and he’s got a great sense of tone for the film. He’s imitating Spielberg, but it’s also distinctly his own style emerging. More than just looking like a movie from the 70’s, it looks like how we saw the 70’s in movies. Abrams paces the movie well and gets some magnificent set pieces together. At the proper times the flick feels alternatingly massive and intimate. Unfortunately, a somewhat clichéd and flawed script prevents this from reaching the level of being a modern classic. Too many of his characters do things purely because the script requires them to, and a few of the more emotional beats seem slightly forced. The energy and goodwill that the film generates covers the script a bit, but not enough to give it a pass. It’s not a bad screenplay, but it drops the movie down a level. There’s a masterpiece to be found within Super 8, but J.J. Abrams just misses being able to grasp it.
Of course questions will be asked about its Oscar hopes. I personally think it’s got some Best Picture potential, but a strong enough 4th quarter of the year will produce enough contenders to knock it out of the running. If it does make it in, watch out for Abrams in Best
Director, though I doubt it can get him anything for Original Screenplay unless that’s sort of a makeup type nod. The lead role by Courtney is a longshot and so is the supporting role by Fanning, but they’re good enough. The film should do well in the tech categories, specifically Cinematography, Film Editing, and the Sound categories (Original Score could happen). Visual Effects is a possibility, but the creature is hidden so much that it could easily be ignored (it’s pretty cool looking though).
If you crossed E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial with Jaws, Cloverfield, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Thing, The Goonies, and Jurassic Park, the end result would be Super 8. I mean that all as a compliment. This is a valentine to moviemaking. It’s also the increasingly rare summer event film that’s original and engages more than just your need for mindless entertainment. Abrams cranks the nostalgia level up to 11, and it works for him. Despite my few issues with the film, Super 8 is excellent entertainment and manages to work on multiple levels. The buildup to the release was worth it, as this is one hell of a fun ride to take with Abrams and Spielberg.
The teaser arrived last summer. A cargo train is seen racing through a quiet town. It is 1979 and title cards inform us that a section of Area 51 has been closed and everything is being shipped to a top secret Ohio location. Then the train collides with a truck, resulting in a horrific accident with wrecked metal and train cars hurtling through the air and into the night sky. Massive explosions, giant balls of fire, and screeching metal fills the soundtrack. Another title card simply states “It’s Coming”. And then, in one train car someone or something starts punching from the inside out, wanting to be free.
That 2010 trailer for Super 8 was, in many ways, the perfect teaser. What is coming? Why did everything we see end up being filtered through a Super 8 camera? What did I just see? Cutting to the summer of 2011, we finally find out what writer/director J.J. Abrams has envisioned and Super 8 feels like a film he has wanted to make for a very long time.
Set in the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio in 1979, a tightknit group of middle school friends are ready to embark on their summer vacation. For this particular group of friends, summer means they can finally focus on and complete work on their first film – a zombie movie. The film is directed by the determined Charles (Riley Griffiths), with Carey (Ryan Lee) handling special effects and explosions, Martin (Gabriel Basso) is the leading man, Preston (Zach Mills) tries to impart wisdom and intelligence to the operation, and Joe (Joel Courtney) serves as an everything-else-man handling makeup, sound, and any other ancillary tasks required of the production. Of course, most of the kids are in front of the camera as well, with poor Carey serving as the go to zombie for the killing scenes. The film needs a female romantic lead for Martin and the unattainable Alice (Elle Fanning) becomes the object of these filmmakers’ interests. Joe is a bit taken by Alice and after the crew summons up the courage to approach Alice about starring in their film, she agrees to join the production.
Alice’s big scene occurs down at a depot near a set of train tracks which run through Lillian and everyone sneaks out long past midnight for the shoot. Alice steals her father’s car, picks up everyone and an impassioned romantic dialogue between Alice and Martin is the goal of the night’s work. During the scene, Alice goes to a completely different place emotionally leaving some of the crew in tears. However, production problems require a second take.
Soon, a train appears on the horizon and with Charles yelling “production value!,” the crew scramble to get everything reset in order to shoot their scene with a real, live train rushing by. As the scene is unfolding again, Joe turns and eyes a truck haphazardly trying to position itself on the tracks. Looking again, he sees the truck accelerating rapidly towards the train and then…the collision, described above and seen a year ago in previews, leaves everyone panicked, shaken, and without any possible clue as to what has just transpired.
Let’s not beat around the bush here. Super 8 is simply great entertainment. The film zips along at an expert pace and Abrams knows how to lay out his story consistently and effectively. The young actors are so well cast that as a viewer you immediately connect with them and draw parallels to kids you either know or knew or heard about. All of the components are in place for Super 8 to be that rare movie that appeals to a cross-section of moviegoers – young, old, mainstream, independent, science fiction enthusiasts, etc. But have we not seen those components before?
We have. And largely, we have seen them from the prolific and heralded work of one of the film’s producers, Steven Spielberg. And therein lies the conundrum with Super 8 — are we watching a filmmaker (Abrams) drawing from the influences which led him to becoming a filmmaker or are we watching a skilled filmmaker and storyteller simply sampling and borrowing from earlier and memorable films to try and make his idea seem fresh and new? I want to believe the former and not the latter. Super 8, reliant on young actors, is a whole lot of a lot of movies. Comparisons can be drawn from Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial just as easily as they can be drawn to The Goonies (a story envisioned by Spielberg) and Stand By Me. When you spike in the elements of the monster at the end of the train and now on the loose in Lillian, Ohio, Abrams filters Super 8 through the lens of a 1950′s or early 1960′s disaster/monster movie. It is clear that as the son of a television producer who made his own films as a teenager, Abrams is harkening back to the films which influenced him in his late teenage years.
As personal a film as this may be for Abrams, the movie struggles to stand apart from those influences and tell its own story. And that is perhaps what is so frustrating about the whole endeavor. Abrams has found terrific chemistry amongst his young acting ensemble, including the relationship and connections made by Joel Courtney’s Joe and Elle Fanning’s Alice. As good as the young actors are here, Elle Fanning is far and away the best of the group and with her work in 2010”s Somewhere and this film, she is laying the foundation for becoming a potential superstar in the years to come.
Super 8 plays like two, or even three films, existing in a parallel universe at times. The kids drive one narrative involving the making of the zombie movie, Joe and Alice deal with parental absence and the strain of a changing familial structure, with a more menacing and real monster movie circling around those stories. When Abrams eventually marries these storylines together, the film buckles and wheezes a bit. As the kids are making their films, the adults – specifically, Kyle Chandler’s deputy, Ron Eldard’s down-on-his-luck and depressed father, and Noah Emmerich’s Colonel Nelec are nothing more than caricatures, never fleshed out beyond their costumes and predictable dialogue and behaviors. Surprisingly, when Colonel Nelec literally comes face-to-face with the realities of the situation he is facing with in Lillian, the suspense and excitement which should be amplifying the moment is sorely lacking.
But acknowledging all of this, the film is so fun to watch that most will forgive the inconsistencies of the story, the heavy-handedness of the film’s emotional core, and a groan-inducing final few minutes. To stand up for the film, I take comfort in admiring Abrams ambition with the project, the way in which in certain moments he can hold you in the palm of his hand and draw a viewer’s knees up to their chest in breathless anticipation. He achieves that at times here, when the monster is heard but not seen, and then scene-by-scene revealed a little bit more and more again. Amidst all of the chaos, when one character goes missing, the unnerving excitement involving the search and possible rescue are on par with some of Abrams’ best work.
Super 8 will serve for many as the embodiment of the perfect summer movie experience. Although I have some resistance to a full-on embrace of the film, I completely see how and why this film has the potential to fill a sorely needed void at the multiplex. Super 8 will be a film that potentially can connect moviegoers of all ages…like Spielberg did so expertly with the films J.J. Abrams borrows or pays homage to here. Then again, for so many people seeing Super 8, they may have never seen E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial or even heard of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or The Goonies, so it may be that my resistance is generational on some level.
Regardless, Super 8 will make you smile, laugh, and move you to the edge of your seat as easily as it will make you cower behind your popcorn bucket or turn into your jacket. And even if the underbaked subplot storylines are obvious and limiting, and the ending (why J.J….why that ending?!) is so frustratingly hokey, it is simply hard to not be welcoming of the enthusiastic and endearing effort that J.J. Abrams and his tremendous cast of young actors have put forth here.
Advisory: Stay for the credits to see a nice and hilarious treat that pays off on one of the film’s subplots perfectly.