Review: Super 8
It doesn’t take a lot to sell audience back their past, proven by George Lucas’ nearly clockwork re-releases of the Star Wars movies. Yet, this is no repacking of old nostalgia, as JJ Abrams manages to sell America back its childhood with style. Super 8 is a heartwarming film, that works as a clear homage to ET and the sub-genre of action-adventure films mastered by Steven Spielberg. Abrams uses the mid-eighties scenery and strained father-son relationship for his own purposes, and the result is an enjoyable hour and fifty minutes. It doesn’t quite meet Spielberg’s high standard, but it’s close. Super 8 is one of the best blockbusters to come out this summer, and is easily one of the most memorable.
Super 8 is a film built on nostalgia for movies past. There’s the band of five kids, living in small town America during the 1980s. Joe is the special effects guy, and his buddy Charles, is the budding director, with the rest of cast being actors in his movie. You can pretty easily make comparisons between these kids and the ones in the Goonies or any other team of eighties kids, but Joe and his friends are given such life in Super 8 that it would be unfair to the film. The dialogue feels right for the characters, establishing their character early on. In a movie with five kids who all look vaguely alike, it’s great that you can tell them apart simply by what they’re saying.
Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths) start Super 8 trying to make a movie with the town outcast Alice, however, a train explosion stops them before they can finish a shoot. The movie then quickly transitions to a Spielbergian monster flick. Before you can snap your fingers, the military rolls into town, and Joe’s father has to balance hunting the creature and being around for his son. Unfortunately this makes the plot predictable. Anyone who has watched ET or any number of Spielberg’s films should be able to anticipate almost every plot development. Yet, Abrams executes it so well, viewers will rarely be bored.
For child actors, the acting is impressive. Their performances are more than serviceable for their roles and show some early skill. I especially enjoyed Elle Fanning as Alice, a slightly haunted girl with an alcoholic father. Scenes where she tries to run and yet becomes closer to Joe, allow her to just steal the moments right from under the other children.
From the adult cast, Kyle Chandler has a stand out performance as Joe’s father, Jackson. Jackson has no idea how to deal with his son since the death of his wife, and so sinks most of his life into his job as town deputy. His job allows him to hunt down the monster like his son, but with a more action movie tone. My only problem with his character is about half way through Super 8 it almost appears as if he is starring a different film. He becomes Columbo-dad, action-detective. This is no fault of Chandler, but it did make his scenes feel a little disjointed from the rest of the movie.
One of the best parts of Super 8 are the setpieces. One prominent example is the train we see in the trailer. Its explosion and the ensuing aftermath are exhilarating as chunks of metal fly across the screen. It constantly feels like those kids could die at any moment. The other setpieces, underground caverns, a torn apart gas station and a water tower, are not as viscerally thrilling, but still make you feel on-edge.
Learning from Cloverfield, Abrams is hesitant to ever show the creature in its entirety. This lets the monster haunt the children and the town. You have no idea when it will appear or what it is capable of, only witnessing the results of its presence. Super 8 comes much closer to a horror film than one might expect, but this is hardly a negative. There are some moments that will make you jump, as the monster creeps closer and closer to the town.
Super 8 isn’t going to replace ET in anyone’s mind, but it is certainly a fun film in its own right. The biggest flaw is that Abrams treats the movie’s overriding themes with a complete lack of subtlety, as the ending makes it brutally obvious that Joe has learned something. Despite that, Super 8 proves that Abrams can write and direct a good film, creating promise for more to come.