Writer/director J. J. Abrams didn't exactly copy Steven Spielberg's work, but he did capture his vibe. Abrams pulls off an astonishing feat of movie magic with Super 8, recapturing that thrill of walking out of ET or The Goonies feeling happy and, just as importantly, feeling like you'd actually gotten your money's worth and not just been subjected to two hours of special effects with very little character development. Super 8 has heart, as did Spielberg's '70s and '80s work, and that's missing from most of Hollywood's summer blockbusters. Sure, Super 8 has a creature in it (and that's as descriptive as I'll get). And yes, there are action scenes involving some pretty spectacular special effects. But Super 8's more than the sum of its parts. It's one of those movies that you want to be in a theater and experience with a crowd. And it's a film that you forgive for any shortcomings in its plot because of how it makes you feel while watching it.
And although it is rated PG-13 for violence, language and drug use, it just feels family-friendly - even though it's not aimed at young audiences. Does that make any sense? I mean, pre-teens will be able to get into Super 8 just as easily as adults and senior citizens. There's a sweetness to the young characters in Super 8, an innocence rarely seen in films since...well, since the films Super 8's modeled after.
The Very Basics of the Story
Knowing as little as possible going into Super 8 will add to your experience, so I'm keeping this synopsis as generic as I can.
It's 1979 and Joe's mother has just been killed in a horrific accident (hinted at but not shown) at the town's steel mill. Flash forward four months and now middle school's out for the summer, and Joe (Joel Courtney) and his best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), are making a Super 8 zombie movie. (Keep in mind this is back when everyone used cameras with real film that took days to be developed.) Charles is the mastermind of the project, a budding filmmaker who apparently idolizes George A. Romero and is hoping to enter his completed movie in a film festival. Joe's the make-up artist, and they're joined by Cary the special effects guy/pyromaniac (Ryan Lee), Martin the trench coat-wearing, not so bright lead actor (Gabriel Basso), and cameraman Preston (Zach Mills). Because they need a girl to play one of the lead roles, Alice (Elle Fanning) joins the troupe, which is great news for Joe who's got a massive crush on the girl with a drunk dad (Ron Eldard) who lives on the wrong side of the tracks.
There's a pivotal scene to be filmed and so the guys head out to a train depot at midnight when they'll have the place all to themselves. As they're capturing the emotional scene, an unscheduled train can be seen heading their way down the tracks. Charles thinks this is stroke of luck - or, in his words, it's "production value" - and instead of waiting for the train to pass by, they continue shooting. However, Joe's attention is drawn away from the group's film by a truck on the tracks heading straight for the train. The head-on collision causes the train to jump the tracks, with box cars exploding, sending crumpled metal parts flying through the air. The kids survive - this is a Spielberg-ish tale - and so does something massive and strange which escapes from a box car.
The kids all realize they need to get out of there before someone shows up, and they just barely escape the scene before being caught by the military. And boy are they lucky they high-tailed it out of there so quickly, as the Air Force soon descends on their town. Weird things start happening and the kids know there's more going on than meets the eye. But will they figure it out before their town's completely destroyed?
Spielberg knows how to cast kids and J.J. Abrams does too. Abrams has somehow managed to find genuine kids to play the youngsters in this film. These unknowns aren't showbiz-y, don't seem to be acting, and are all absolutely terrific. In particular Joel Courtney, who has the most screen time of the bunch, is a real gem. Also surprisingly effective and completely unaffected is Elle Fanning, Dakota's little sis. Dakota occasionally comes across as though she's putting on an act, while Elle was simply living this character.
The adult roles are also well cast. Kyle Chandler is alternately exasperating and heartbreaking as the struggling dad still in mourning for his wife four months after her tragic death who has no idea what to do with his young son. Ron Eldard (where's he been?) is solid as Fanning's alcoholic father, and Noah Emmerich is so good he makes you want to boo and hiss whenever he's on the screen as the commander in charge of the Air Force's cover-up.
The Bottom Line
Super 8's smart and funny, sentimental without being sickeningly so. It also has brilliant set design and costuming, and authentic dialogue (except for a few scenes where Abrams is obviously paying homage to Spielberg's family dinner table sequences). Walkmans, a handheld electronic football game, "My Sharona" by The Knack...it's a slice of the '70s served up to perfection.
Abrams' script plays fast with the ending, and certain elements of the story - which will not be discussed so as not to spoil the fun - either don't really add up or wind up tied up way too neatly. But ultimately it just doesn't matter. What Abrams has created here is a near-perfect summer movie, the sort of film that comes along so rarely I almost forgot something this engaging (from a major studio) can still exist in this world of $200+ million summer effects films.
GRADE: A- (and not an A only because of the design of one particular character)
Super 8 was directed by J.J. Abrams and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.
Theatrical Release: June 10, 2011