Super 8 is like J.J. Abrams’ love letter to Steven Spielberg’s films of the 1980’s. The comparisons are unavoidable, and yet I mean that in the best possible way.
There’s something refreshing about a summer movie that isn’t a sequel or a super hero movie. And one that is an original script is certainly a plus, even if some of it is not completely original. Hey, if it’s done well and doesn’t suck, these days, we’ll take it! Fortunately, Super 8 is even better than that.
Super 8 is like J.J. Abrams’ love letter to Steven Spielberg’s films of the 1980’s. The comparisons are unavoidable, and yet I mean that in the best possible way. Seeing, of course, that Spielberg produced this Abrams directed film, it all makes a lot of sense. Seeing as a teenage Abrams was hired to restore Spielberg’s super 8 films is almost comical destiny. So, with Super 8 we can easily see how it is very much like E.T., but with a somewhat darker tone at times. This is isn’t for your seven year olds, but rather the PG-13 rating is appropriate in this case.
Super 8 follows a small group of middle school teens in 1979 rural Ohio as they are making a super 8 film for a competition. While sneaking off one night to shoot at the local train station, things are interrupted as a passing train collides with a truck on the tracks. The kids flee for the very lives as the train derails in a magnificent scene full of absolute chaos. Is it Spielbergian? Yes, in all the best ways. Soon people start disappearing from the town, and strange happenings occur. It becomes clear that something was in the train and is now free in this small town. The kids are determined to unravel the mystery.
Much of the film has a familiar sound to it. The focus is on the kids, some of which only have one parent and that relationship is strained. The parents chalk up their kids warnings as flights of fancy or are too involved in their own personal things to give any heed to their kids. Then they have the eventual realization that their kids aren’t as incapable as they thought. Then the military show up to control things in a very heavy-handed and ominous way. There’s even a melodramatic finale a la Spielberg. But even though much of the film is familiar, there is some great acting by the kids, especially the two leads, Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb, and Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard.
There is a great emotional thread that holds a lot of the drama together. Joe’s mom died in a factory accident. Joe’s deputy officer dad, played by Kyle Chandler, has been distant since then. Alice joins the teen boys on their super 8 film, and her dad seems to have something to do with the death of Joe’s mom. This, along with other plot points among the kids, give us reasons to care about them. This is strongest with Joe and Alice, and with Joe’s on going struggle to deal with his mother’s death. How this “thing” from the train ties in is almost like Cloverfield in the sense that the film isn’t exactly about that, it’s about the kids and their situations. This “thing” gets a slow reveal as the film progresses, until in the third act you get to see it clearly. And this is no cutesie E.T. It’s more like if E.T. was big, scary and pissed off. I was wondering if the tone would feel strange, but it doesn’t. It’s like Spielberg used to do it: it’s a film about kids put in unique or extreme circumstances. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it is genuinely scary. The moments that are scary, are pretty intense. Seriously, no one under 12 or 13 for this one. But it’s effective and still mostly lighter stuff. It just has it’s dark moments.
Dare I say Super 8 is nostalgic for those 1980’s Spielberg films? Of course. There’s really no escaping it. Abrams clearly wanted to pay some homage to those days, in numerous ways, including the soundtrack. There’s a lot of fun here, yet it’s clear that as good as he is, Abrams still isn’t Spielberg, at least not yet. I forget that this is only his third film as director. He still has things to learn, but I think he’ll eventually be one of the really great ones. No, it isn’t a perfect film. There are a few little things here and there. A moment where you have to sort of suspend disbelief, some of the secondary characters aren’t fleshed out enough. But overall this is a fun film that is at least an original script not based on a super hero and not a part 5 of a franchise. I enjoyed it and I’m giving it a strong 3 and a half kittenhands. Somewhere between the competent Thor and excellence of X-men: First Class. Oh, and stay for the credits to see the completed super 8 movie the kids were working on. It’s fun!
~ Neil T. Weakley, your average movie-goer, recommending this one. Now we see how Green Lantern fares.