Rating:They don’t make films like Super 8 anymore. Actually, I guess Super 8 proves that they do, but definitely not as often as they used to in the early 1980s, when it seemed like a Steven Spielberg-produced family sci-fi/horror film would open every other month.
There were specific trademarks to films like The Goonies, Gremlins and E.T. — they were set in small towns where everyone knew everyone else; they featured curious but good-natured children; and, most importantly, they showcased an unparalleled sense of awe.
These films thrived off the magic of childhood summer nights, when anything seemed possible. The world was fantastic and mysterious, just waiting for you to get out and explore it with your friends. Luckily for moviegoers of 2011, Super 8 is no half-baked rip-off of these films, but instead a thrilling, heart-felt and magical film that is equal to the best of Spielberg’s 1980s classics.
Written and directed by J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Trek), Super 8 is a story of friendship, family and filmmaking, but it is first and foremost the story of Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney).
Joe and his friends Charles, Martin, Cary and Preston are adolescent filmmakers using their Super 8 camera to create elaborate stories and explore their imaginations. Joe, having recently lost his mother and struggling to connect with his father, the deputy Sheriff (Friday Night Lights‘ Kyle Chandler), opts to spend more time than ever with his friends, promising to help Charles finish a zombie movie for a local film festival.
One night, they convince Alice (Elle Fanning), the girl Joe is crushing on, to join the film and together they sneak out to the train station to do some filming. When a train comes barreling down the tracks, the kids think they’re lucky and decide to film it in the background to add to their amateur production values. Unfortunately, a truck appears on the tracks and hits the oncoming train, causing it to derail and blow up spectacularly.
In the aftermath of the train crash, mysterious happenings occur. The local dogs run away, the town’s generators are stolen and the Air Force appears on the scene looking for something mysterious unleashed by the train crash. To say what comes next would spoil the fun (although I’m sure the Internet will do plenty of spoiling for you if you let it).
Super 8 has many strengths, not least of which is its ensemble of young actors. It’s often said that child actors suck, but a weak child actor speaks more to a poor director than the child’s lack of acting talent. Abrams was wise in casting mostly a group of first-time actors and working very closely with them to bring out the best performances possible. It’s an error to think that a child’s performance need be psychologically complex because children are not psychologically complex. Most children are not precocious and the best child performances are merely convincing as children.
The children of Super 8 are true adolescents. They think they’re mature and speak a mile a minute overtop of each others’ words, but they’re also innocent and good-natured. Abrams did a wonderful job crafting these characters and working with the actors. As a result, Super 8 features some of the most honest child characters around.
The film also has some astonishingly good action sequences. The train crash is one of the most spectacular action scenes in recent memory. Unlike most contemporary action films, the scene is not merely meant to wow us with its visuals (although it is visually impressive) but engage us emotionally, playing upon our sympathy with the characters involved.
Other scenes involving the mysterious goings-on about town are tense and eerie, similar to Jaws in how they obscure visuals in order to enhance thrills for the viewer. As well, the final scene in which the characters gaze up in wonder at something fantastic in the summer night sky evokes all the emotion and mystery and wonder that only the best summer movies can.
Super 8 is far more than nostalgia porn. It’s an honest and heartfelt film that explores the bravery and wonder of adolescence. It’s a love letter to both amateur filmmaking and iconic childhood films of the past. It’s also a thrilling, emotionally engaging and beautifully shot film that has a sense of wonder and mystery that is all too absent in recent blockbusters.
We live in an age when summer blockbusters are usually patchwork products composed of the most derivative and dishonest components of other, better movies. Thus, it’s all the more refreshing to see a film like Super 8, a film that pays homage to the best parts of films of the past while also existing as a magical and engaging experience in its own right.
image: Paramount Pictures