(Paramount Pictures) Cloaked in secrecy for over a year, Super 8 came crashing into theaters this month, leaving critics and audiences nostalgic for the glory days of film. The blockbuster hit is clearly inspired by director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg’s childhoods and their first endeavors in movie-making. Super 8 puts its characters before its monster – a decision that makes it one of my most enjoyable movie experiences in years. The obvious influence of sci-fi family films, many of them Spielberg’s, is more a loving homage to the good old days. Super 8 captures a time of excitement and wonder long gone, both in America and in film-making. Comparisons to E.T., Close Encounters, The Goonies, and even Spielberg’s darker films, like Jaws and Jurassic Park, are unavoidable, but that’s what makes it so fun.
Abrams manages to compose a straightforward yet tender story starring a group of young teenagers who witness a horrifying train crash, and the treacherous secret it contains. We first meet our nerdy movie-buff boys as they sneak out of their suburban houses to film scenes for a zombie romance flick on their, you guessed it, Super 8 camera. The endlessly quippy and charming group consists of exuberant ringleader director Charles (Riley Griffiths), pyromaniac cameraman Cary (Ryan Lee), hesitant lighting guy, Preston (Zach Mills), queasy lead actor Martin (Gabriel Basso), and our hero, soft-spoken makeup and effects specialist Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney). Their escape depends on their lead actress, the hardened ingénue Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), who steals her father’s yellow hot rod and, with it, Joe’s heart. Fanning has already stepped out from under her sister (Dakota Fanning)’s shadow to reveal a remarkable young actress. Joe’s wide-eyed awe is exactly what the audience feels for her as she performs an emotional monologue at the train station.
This is where the action begins, as the train comes hurtling toward them, and the Super 8 keeps rolling to catch something on tape that everyone, including an Air Force team, wants to know more about. A peculiar scientist lies at the heart of the mystery and draws Joe and his friends into a vast conspiracy that begins to seep into their small town. As people and pets begin to disappear, Joe’s father, Sheriff Lamb (the underused Kyle Chandler), struggles with his newfound responsibility for the bewildered citizens and his son. The kids continue to film their zombie movie with their real-life footage, and get swept up in unraveling the mystery – what was in the train?
Abrams has proven himself adept at mixing genres together with his television hits Lost, Alias, and Fringe, and Super 8 is no exception. While the hilariously endearing characters drive the film, it is also a thriller, a coming-of-age adventure, and a monster movie. Our hero, Joe, lost his mother months prior in a steel mill accident. The story is as much about his relationship with his grieving and distant father as it is about young love and friendship.
True, the movie is not perfect. Sometimes Spielberg’s influence seems to drown out Abram’s voice, but not often enough to complain. Some fans protest that to keep the film and its story shrouded in mystery was a cheap marketing ploy, but I was glad that, for once, the entire movie wasn’t revealed in the trailer! Abrams was explicit in interviews that this was a story about a small town and what happens when something foreign and dangerous disrupts their lives. Though I adored Cloverfield, Abrams’ hand-held monster movie, I appreciated this shift in tone. I left Super 8 feeling exhilarated and wistful for the movies of my childhood.
Despite its minor flaws, Super 8 is one hell of a ride. Abrams is somehow able to take that bittersweet, familiar feeling from his youth and bring it up to speed. The special effects are spectacular but not overused, and the immense creature skulking and stomping around the town is left up to the imagination for most of the film. The kids more than steal the show; each character is well-constructed and fleshed out. Courtney and Fanning’s chemistry is undeniable. Their interactions reveal the awkward sweetness of innocent love. Griffiths and Lee are mesmerizing as the energetic young filmmakers. Super 8 begs the question: can we go back to a simpler time? Perhaps this 2D, story-driven summer flick will encourage the studios to abandon the flashier remakes for more original fare. Either way, the smash hit was a joy to watch -- the kind of film that leaves you breathless and wanting more.
For Fans Of: E.T., The Goonies, Stand By Me