Published Jun 09, 2011Presented under the Amblin Entertainment banner, producer Steven Spielberg's influence is all over director/writer J.J. Abrams' (Lost, Star Trek) ode to the smart youth adventures of yore ― yore being the late '70s/early '80s.
The tale of a group of budding filmmakers on the cusp of puberty who become embroiled in mysterious events afflicting their small town following a horrible train wreck, there is no mistaking Abrams' intentions to make a classic, uncompromising event film that treats kids with respect. At that, he succeeds marvellously, with a few exceptions.
Simple, effective visual storytelling sets the scene. A devastating accident has left Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney) without his doting mother and in the care of his work-obsessed cop father (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights). At the funeral, Joe's friends discuss, with youthful morbidity, the condition of the body, quickly establishing the honest, funny, unfiltered rapport of childhood friends discovering life.
Four months later, Joe is moving beyond his loss by, like his father, burying himself in work. In his case, it's assisting his domineering director buddy, Charles (Riley Griffiths, another first-timer), in making a short zombie film over the summer to submit to a Super 8 film festival. They're aided by archetypal pals Martin (the dim-witted, wussy leading man, Cary (the cheeky pyromaniac) and hanger-on/default extra Preston.
Their ace-in-the-hole is the drafting of obvious crush Alice and her willingness to steal her drunken father's car to get some added production value by driving the crew to the train station to film a key scene. They get a heck of a lot more than bargained for.
Abrams thoughtfully excludes the use of the footage shot for the initial trailer of the train derailment while referencing it from the perspective of the kids. What follows is one of the most intense scenes of destruction ever witnessed in a PG-13 film. The stakes feel high and I honestly didn't know who would make it out alive.
In the aftermath of the carnage, the kids stumble onto a compelling and threatening mystery, carefully dished out over the course of the film. Don't let anyone tell you anything beyond the crash ― half the fun is in the way Abrams doles out just enough info just frequently enough to keep viewers interested, but mostly in the dark for the majority of the film. You can guess at Super 8's secrets, but you're probably only partly right, at best.
The film's primary charm is the relationships of its young protagonists. Even without the suspense, intrigue and scares (apparently it's scary enough to make a grown man jump out of his seat, showering the woman in front of him with popcorn at my screening), this is a strong character drama with hearty laughs and touching, natural performances, especially from Joel and Riley, in their debuts, and, already a veteran at age 13, Elle Fanning as Alice.
In fact, Super 8's biggest weakness is any time spent away from the kids, with their overprotective, under-effective parents. Deputy Lamb has an unnecessary side story that does little more than fill time and grant him an unearned emotional resolution. Aside from one thoughtlessly included shot that attacks a piece of the film's logic, or senselessly implies that horses are less attuned to environmental threats than dogs, and Abrams' overt obsession with horizontal lens flare, those are my only issues with Super 8, and they are minor elements of a whole that transcends them.
The revelations aren't as shocking as some might hope, but neither are they underwhelming or cop-outs. Similarly, some of the sentiments are quite obviously depicted, but that doesn't make them any untrue, just not obtuse for a film geared towards leaving an indelible mark on the cinematic memory of future generations and reminding older viewers of what it was like to experience reverent movie magic at a more innocent age. (Paramount)