J.J. Abrams is a movie nerd, and I mean that in the most positive sense of the word. The man responsible for TV’s Lost and Alias, the updated Star Trek, Cloverfield and other sci-fi and action movies has now combined his latest story with memories of Super 8 movie-making in his youth. But with Super 8, he seems to be doing even more, emulating the early films of Steven Spielberg, another Super 8 enthusiast, and a producer here. Whether or not that’s true, the result is a great summer movie.
It’s 1979. Joe (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother to a tragic industrial accident at the local steel mill. His dad Jack (Kyle Chandler), a Deputy Sheriff, isn’t the most emotional guy to begin with, and overcome with grief, he’s even less equipped to deal with Joe. He can’t relate to Joe’s interest in the amateur zombie film that Joe and his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) are making with their friends.
While filming a late-night scene at a train station, a passing train mysteriously (and spectacularly) derails, and the kids discover it has a very strange cargo. An avid modeller, Joe recognizes the train cars as belonging to the Air Force. Sure enough, before long an armed squad has descended on the town to clean up the mess. But it seems like they’re also looking for something, which is of little comfort to the townspeople as mysterious events begin occurring. When the Sheriff disappears, Jack is forced to take over, and try to get answers. Meanwhile, the kids are trying to finish Charles’ movie, yet find themselves drawn into events more and more.
Perhaps I’m needlessly stepping my way around something you’ve already guessed – there’s an alien on the loose here. But this is no cutesy E.T. – after years of imprisonment and abuse, this alien is angry and desperate. If Abrams really is trying to emulate Spielberg, he may have come closer to Jaws. This is very firmly a monster movie, and while there’s little to no real violence, young children may be quite frightened by it.
All the performances here are excellent, particularly the kids, and especially Courtney and Elle Fanning, who plays Alice, the girl Joe likes. Abrams’ script succeeds brilliantly in giving us the same vibe of kids hanging out from not just Spielberg’s films but other 80s classics like The Goonies and Stand by Me. The look of the film is great too, although Abrams’ choice of a blue lens flare, an attempt to simulate 70s film technology, comes off looking too polished and modern. It’s distracting.
By turns thrilling, scary, and emotional, Super 8 may remind you of the movies of your younger days, but more than that, it’s just a great movie.
PS: Stay in your seat when the end credits roll to see the kids’ finished movie. It’s a hilarious bonus, and a fitting tribute to the movie’s origins.