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.