Directed by J.J. Abrams
Screenplay by J.J. Abrams
Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb
Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard
Kyle Chandler as Jackson Lamb
Amanda Michalka as Jen Kaznyk
How long is Super 8? 112 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.
Action-adventure flick throws us back to the days of yore, gives us something to smile about.
A group of plucky, slightly foulmouthed teenagers inadvertently witness the release of an alien creature onto their small town. They must subvert the sinister military presence to discover the mystery behind its origins, and soon they discover it only wants to go home. Sound familiar? Perhaps a little “E.T. phone home?” Well, Super 8 producer Steven Spielberg knows from whence he comes, and he and director J.J. Abrams (“Lost”) fashioned a summer movie that’s both homage to and a playful jibing at 1980s action/adventure filmmaking. Since the first full-length trailer released, people have guessed that Super 8 is a cross between The Goonies, E.T., and Cloverfield, and that’s exactly true. But luckily for us, those flicks were pretty great.
In 1979 in Lillian, Ohio, thirteen-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother in a gruesome accident. He’s harboring a problematic crush on tall, willowy blond Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), and only just getting to know his gruff deputy father (Kyle Chandler). Meanwhile Joe and his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) are making a Romero-inspired zombie movie along with Alice and three friends. When they sneak off in the dead of night to film at a train station, the six teens witness a train crash that is certainly the coolest you’ve seen in years. While the accident miraculously only leaves them a little charred and jarred, the thing that escapes from an armored train car causes very real, very frightening troubles in Lillian.
The film’s opening features the Amblin logo writ large, the soaring bicycles silhouetted on the moon deliberately evocative of that other alien movie. Super 8 is a very purposeful throwback to early 80s filmmaking, from color scheme to tone to subject matter. Even more than that, though, Abrams and Spielberg made certain the camera itself plays an integral role in the film. Lens flares chop through characters’ faces, obscuring them in favor of reminding us we’re watching a movie. Blatant Steadicam is a continuous reminder that this is all playing out in front of a camera. The movie is sprinkled with dual focus shots, which are as jarring as they are captivating – and were heavily used by Brian de Palma in the heyday of 1976’s Carrie. Super 8’s title is derived from the most readily available home video film in that era. Charles’s room is adorned lovingly with posters for Halloween and Dawn of the Dead, and it escapes exactly no one that what’s happening in Lillian is exactly the plot of a disaster movie. The self-referential tone reminds us that we’re watching a movie that’s as much about aliens in small-town America as it is about other movies.
Abrams brought crew members from “Lost,” including composer Michael Giacchino and cinematographer Larry Fong, onto Super 8. Giacchino’s score seems to be aping those of Spielberg’s most frequent musical collaborator John Williams, but that works here. Fong’s experience occluding monsters in “Lost” and “Fringe” comes in handy; although a super 8 camera is the first thing to capture our E.T., we first see the creature in the reflection of a puddle. Just as it becomes maddening that we can’t get the bigger picture, Abrams finally hands it to us – and the creature won’t disappoint. Abrams wrote the script, which manages to balance wit, sweetness, and scares with aplomb.
Twelve-year-olds the world round will shortly be nursing a crush on Joel Courtney, whose infectious grin, floppy mop of brown hair, and button nose would’ve landed him on the cover of Tiger Beat twenty years ago. Kyle Chandler, AKA Coach Taylor on the brilliant “Friday Night Lights,” may be a one-trick pony, but damned if he isn’t great at playing a brusque but caring father. Elle Fanning, younger sister to Dakota (whose child-star trajectory seems the least disastrous of any recently, and who whipped out a great performance in The Runaways), captures the camera’s attention with her ability to change personas in a flash. Good genes and an almost eerie maturity must run in the Fanning family.
Super 8 is by no means perfect. It’s a little trite, a little sentimental, and glosses over a few plot points that should’ve been fleshed out. The military men are unreasonably evil – no Peter Coyote to play the friendly believer in uniform here. The Romeo and Juliet subplot that underscores Joe and Alice’s innocent romance could’ve used a little more development. The troupe of kids doesn’t quite have the rapport they did in The Goonies or E.T., but their reactions to catastrophe are charming all the same (the screaming, cussing, and puking are reminiscent of another period favorite, The Sandlot). Finally, this creature is no cute little humanoid that heals wounds, though our protagonists do form a psychic connection with it; Abrams smoothes over its penchant for brutality with a slightly ham-fisted attempt at humanizing it.
These small flaws aside (and they really are small), Super 8 is quality filmmaking. This is what a PG-13 summer blockbuster looks like. For those of us who grew up on 80s action flicks it’s a delightful return to form. Hopefully it will engage a whole new crop of kids and entertain their parents in the process. Smart, scary, sweet, and witty are not attributes you often get to assign to one film, but this one takes them all. We’re in the midst of a country-wide heat wave, so what better thing to do than retreat into a cool, dark theater and let Abrams and Spielberg thrill you? Go. Enjoy.