Take a dash of The Goonies, mash up a 1950s monster movie, and splash liberally with ET-era Steven Spielberg and flavor to taste with JJ Abrams’ love of cutting edge special effects, and what do you get? Well, once you blend it all together into a delicious soup, you get Super 8, the latest sci-fi brilliance from Abrams, and his first collaboration with Steven Spielberg, who gave Abrams his start in the movie game before he became a renowned director in his own right.
Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is a budding teenage special effects wizard, who works with his best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), while Charles and the other outcast boys in the middle school work on monster movies. While it’s not exactly the most girl catching of pastimes, it does allow the boys to have fun and work on their craft using a handy-dandy Super 8 video camera. Of course, their craft is low-rent zombie detective movies, but you have to start somewhere, right?
Needing a female to play the love interest (and needing a girl with access to a car), the crew turns to the lovely Alice (Elle Fanning), daughter of the town drunk and, no doubt, the cutest troubled girl at Lillian Middle School.
During a night shoot at a train station, the crew somehow gets caught in the middle of one of the most awesome special effects sequences I’ve ever seen, as a military train derails and its cargo, its living cargo, escapes into the night.
With the adults otherwise distracted, it’s up to Joe, Charles, Alice, and the rest of the kids to figure out just what was on that train and what’s causing all the weird disappearances and power disturbances in town before it’s too late.
One thing I worry about with this movie being sold so Spielberg-heavy is that we’re going to run into another Poltergeist situation. For those who don’t remember, Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist from a Spielberg script, with Spielberg producing as well.
The rumor is that clashes between the two meant that Spielberg ended up directing the flick and reshooting big portions of it, while Hooper was marginalized, at best, and secretly replaced at worst. (The current story from the actors is that Spielberg directed it using Hooper as a front to get around his ET contract. The Directors Guild of America says that there was no evidence for a co-director credit for Spielberg.)
This movie, from what I can tell, is all Abrams, right down to the love of lens flare, but JJ Abrams is doing his very best Spielberg impression, and that’s not a bad thing.
There’s an emotional core here. The kids all seem like they’re friends, and Elle Fanning gives a wonderful performance in spite of her youth. Normally, I hate movies with kids, because it’s tough to get a good performance out of kids, but Abrams and company did a great job working with these kids (and a better job casting these kids).
As for the script, also by Abrams, there are a few flaws. The story slows down a little in the middle, which is understandable after the hot start and before the very exciting finale. There are a few improbable moments, but when you consider that this is basically an adventure movie for kids, there’s a necessary suspension of disbelief that comes along with the territory (and there’s usually a character among the kids who questions the logic of whatever crazy decision the plot requires for maximum adventure).
When I mention adventure, I mean adventure. This is like ET-era Spielberg with better special effects and better child actors. It’s a sweet movie, but it’s not too sweet so as to be cloying. The kids are a little precocious, but it’s not implausible, considering they’re all kind of nerds and they’re on the cusp of adulthood. There’s adventure and peril, and while there are scary moments, it’s not too scary for the target audience.
If you don’t get a little nostalgic for the 80s while watching Super 8, you obviously didn’t grow up in the 80s on child-friendly adventure fare or summer movies with a soul.