Nostalgia can often be a cheap shortcut to sentiment, but
the new film Super 8, which purposely evokes the Spielberg movies of the late
1970s and early 1980s, is an oddly personal, small-scale summer blockbuster,
providing an honest and involving look back at childhood, along with a bunch of
It’s 1979 in Lillian, Ohio, and 12-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel
Courtney) has just lost his mother in an industrial accident at the town’s
steel mill. Joe and his father, Deputy Sheriff Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler), are
distant, and they don’t really know how to deal with each other without her
Jack doesn’t seem to want to deal with his or his son’s
grief, and tries to ship him off to baseball camp for six weeks. Instead, Joe
wants to help his friends make a zombie movie. There’s Charles (Riley
Griffiths), the director, as well as nervous and nerdy Preston (Zach Mills);
Martin (Gabriel Basso), also nervous and
nerdy but tall enough to play an adult in the movie; and brace-faced Cary (Ryan Lee), a budding pyromaniac who
makes his own fireworks.
Jack doesn’t have any particular beef with his son’s
friends, but he still doesn’t want him hanging out with them, which causes Jack
the familiar childhood feeling that his parent’s first instinct is to say no to
whatever he asks, with the reason to be figured out later.
That reason turns out to be Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning),
who has been drafted to play the wife of the main character in the kids’ zombie
movie. Joe’s mother, on the day she died, was covering a shift that Alice’s
father, Louis (Ron Eldard), missed because he was drunk. He blames himself for
her death, and Jack tends to agree.
One night, the kids sneak out, and Alice drives them in her
father’s car to the town’s abandoned train station. While shooting a scene for their
movie, they see a pickup truck drive onto the tracks and into the path of an
oncoming train. The kids barely escape the crash, as train cars get fired past their heads like bottle rockets, but
their abandoned Super 8 camera keeps filming.
After the crash, weird things start to happen all over town.
People’s pets are disappearing, and being found in nearby towns, in roughly a concentric
circle around Lillian. Appliances and car engines are vanishing as well, and
occasionally, some people, too. The military, led by Col Nelec (Noah Emmerich),
comes to town, but they only seem interested in covering things up. However, the footage from the kids’ camera may be able
to shed some light on what’s happening.
The movie was written and directed by Lost and Fringe
creator J.J. Abrams. In his third feature film as director, Abrams is showing
steady improvement behind the camera, although he does still occasionally seem
to think that an abundance of lens flares is a valid visual style.
Steven Spielberg produced the movie in just about every way
that you can produce a movie. He helped to get the movie made, of course, but Spielberg
also produced this movie in the same way that Sergio Leone produced Kill Bill:
Volume 2. There is a constant and purposeful evocation of Spielberg’s early
period, from the suburban setting to the broken family at the film’s center to
the way some of the scenes are staged.
Still, while Abrams’ love of the era is undeniable, he is smart enough not to
ape particular moments from the films. A character here or a shot there may remind
you of a certain movie, but there are no specific references.
Abrams’ enthusiasm for moviemaking really shines through in
the characters here. Charles has a Halloween poster on his bedroom wall. Joe
makes model trains and name-checks Dick Smith’s monster makeup manual. I love the way Charles
views the train crash as “production value,” staging scenes in front of the wreckage and
using the soldiers as unwitting extras in the background of scenes.
The film does a great job with all the scenes between the
kids, capturing the group dynamic, the way they make fun of each other. The
movie lets them curse and be jerks to each other, and shows the freedom they
feel about sneaking out and doing something they aren’t supposed to, no matter what it is. The kids are still very
unformed, but coming to that time in their lives where they start making their own decisions.
The cast is uniformly good. Chandler, from TV’s Friday Night
Lights, is solid, as you might expect, but the kids are the real discoveries. Courtney,
in what appears to be his first professional job, handles all the emotional turns the film throws
at him, and Fanning is amazingly poised and understated here. After this and last year’s Somewhere,
she is fast eclipsing her older sister, Dakota, as the talented one in the
Abrams has said that Super 8 originated as two separate
ideas, and I believe it. The two halves of the film are both good, but they
don’t mesh together particularly well. The mystery plot is fine,
with a real sense of mood and tension, but it feels a little undeveloped, and the stuff with the kids is much stronger,. When the film goes full-on action crazy during the third act, it seems out of place, and I kind of wished it would get back to the kids shooting their movie.
On the whole, Abrams’ script can be frustratingly uneven. He
begins the film with a lovely bit of
visual storytelling that shows how Joe’s mother was killed, then immediately gets incredibly on-thenose. The first lines spoken in the film come from a neighbor of the Lambs, who basically says outright that the two don’t know each other very well, and will have to figure out how to live with each other now that Joe’s mother is gone. Heaven forbid that we figure that out from the characters’ actions when someone can just come right out and say it.
Another incident late in the film, which I won’t spoil, is
similarly corny and obvious, and, in
the end, the movie just doesn’t quite earn that level of sentimentality.
To say that a movie is no E.T. isn’t necessarily calling it
bad. Despite the fact that the more character-based parts of the story don’t
always mesh well with the sci-fi mystery plot, Super 8 is a
charming and honest look back at adolescence and its obsessions. The movie has a great cast of young characters and, at its best, however fleetingly, captures some of the awe and wonder that made E.T. and Close Encounters so magical.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.