With the rush to special effects and computer graphics, too many filmmakers have forgotten that the core of every good film is an interesting story, which is why the Steven Spielberg/J.J. Abrams collaboration Super 8 was such a joy to watch. Yes, there were splendid special effects, but the characters were all delightful and the story slowly unfolded, letting our curiosity build as we tried to figure out why people were acting as they were and what was going on as things proceeded.
The film is set in the small steel town of Lillian, Ohio in 1979 and revolves around pre-teen pals Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), Charles (Riley Griffiths), Preston (Zach Mills), Cary (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Alice (Elle Fanning). Joe’s mother has died in a mill accident as the film opens, leaving him and his father, town deputy sheriff Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) to grieve in awkward dysfunctional silence.
Led by budding filmmaker Charles, the boys are busy making a zombie film called “The Case” when they sneak out at midnight to shoot some night footage at the train station. As they watch in horror, there’s a tremendous train wreck and they barely escape with their lives.
Mysterious things start to happen in Lillian and they start to wonder if there’s a connection with the great train derailment, even as they continue to film while using the US Air Force clean up efforts as backgrounds for their scenes.
Super 8 pays homage to the great kid adventure films of the 80s, including The Goonies (co-written by Spielberg), along with much of Spielberg’s amazing oeuvre of films including E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In fact, there are entire scenes (like one where Joe’s invited to stay at Charles’ house for dinner, with the camera slowly panning through the chaos of his siblings) that are almost lifted intact from these earlier films, something I found both endearing and amusing.
A beast was being transported on the train and when the accident occurs, it escapes into the rural area around Lillian. The scenes with the monster were pretty intense, certainly more so than the gentle aura of both E.T. and Close Encounters, but from the children vs. adults theme to the skepticism of the military’s motives, Super 8 touches on a number of Spielberg’s most enduring themes, and does so beautifully. This is filmmaking as it should be and is a movie I’ll look forward to purchasing on Blu-Ray to watch again and again.
There are narrative hiccups in the film, which makes me wonder if the director’s cut will add footage to better explain what’s happening and to improve the pacing of some of the narrative elements. At one point, for example, Joe’s dad Deputy Lamb (Chandler) is arrested and then vanishes from the story for such a long time that I wondered if director Abrams had simply forgotten about him. There’s also a striking scene when Joe realizes that his dog is one of dozens that have mysteriously vanished from town; when they show up miles away, it’s hard to understand what it has to do with the narrative.
I was a teen – albeit older than the characters in Super 8 – when the film was set, 1979, and was delighted by the extraordinary attention to detail that Abrams and his set decoration and production team put towards the era. From “Keep on Truckin'” posters juxtaposed with a cutaway illustration of the Space Shuttle to magazines and TV personalities glimpsed as boys run through living rooms, it’s award-worthy in its verisimilitude.
It’s hard for films set 20-30 years ago to not slip in wry commentary about the future and I only caught them doing it once, when gas station attendant Breen (Beau Knapp) is listening to a new fangled gizmo called a Walkman when Sheriff Pruitt (Brett Rice) warns him “be careful with that thing, there’s no telling what it’ll lead to…” Amusing, but these sort of lines are dangerous because they can break the magic of the historic setting and remind viewers that they’re watching a film, not experiencing a story.
One of the central conceits of the movie is a favorite theme of this reviewer: a film about making movies. Watch the brilliant Rear Window and you’ll see Alfred Hitchcock exploring the difference between someone who watches an event and someone who participates, and Super 8 offers the same fascinating duality in a more modern setting. When Alice and Joe are reading lines from “The Case”, is it for their benefit, or ours? Indeed, who is the actor and who is the filmmaker in Super 8?
The film progresses on parallel tracks between the boys making their micro-budget movie (at one point, Charles says “we need some money, I’ll go steal it from my Mom!”), their investigation of the train wreck and the mysterious happenings throughout the area, Deputy Lamb’s investigation and the Air Force investigation (led by the suitably ominous General Nelec (Noah Emmerich).
Both Spielberg and Abrams are masters of their craft, as demonstrated by the popular and critical hits in their past (including the terrific Star Trek reboot, the TV series Lost, Saving Private Ryan, The Pacific, Jurassic Park, and the Indiana Jones series), and Super 8 is a splendid addition to their resumes. Manipulative of the audience at times, trite with its “kids are good, adults are bad” sensibility, it was still a satisfying story with a group of terrific young actors and a completely expected and nonetheless touching finale. Highly recommended.
Oh, and one tip: stay through the credits and you get to see “The Case”, the short film that the young actors made during the movie. It’s quite nostalgic and amusing.