Movie Review: Super 8
By Matthew Huntley
June 21, 2011
Thinking back on J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, one word keeps coming to mind: solid. Abrams’ long-awaited science fiction drama is neither a magical experience nor an ineffectual one. It is, simply, a solid piece of family entertainment that openly recalls the early works of Steven Spielberg. It doesn’t try to be subtle about this latter quality since Abrams is a huge admirer of Spielberg and the big man himself even serves as the film’s producer. For Abrams, the project probably fulfilled his childhood dream of one day making a movie like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. Now that he’s been given the chance, the result is, well, solid.
Since it was first shown, the trailer for Super 8 suggested there was a mystery to the story and for once it didn’t give too much away. And while the mystery is intriguing in its own right, it says something about the strength and conviction of the storytelling when the movie works in spite of it. The tension surrounding whatever escaped from that train car will lure people into theaters, but it’s the human elements that will stay with them after they leave.
The plot initially follows a group of middle school students making a zombie movie on their summer vacation. It is 1979 and they’re using a Super 8 film camera (videotape is just around the corner). One night, while shooting at their small Ohio town’s empty train station, a pickup truck drives onto the tracks and collides with an oncoming train, causing a tremendous explosion. The kids survive and discover the truck’s driver is one of their own school teachers. He points a gun at them and tells them to run away before the military arrives. It happens that their film camera was running the entire time and caught footage of some very confidential cargo.
Like Close Encounters and E.T., the plot of Super 8 is but an engine for a greater emotional story. This one focuses on the relationships between two children and their single fathers, all of whom are wounded after a recent tragedy. Earlier that winter, 13-year-old Joe (Joel Courtney) lost his mom in a factory accident and his father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), who’s also the town deputy, is at a loss of how to cope, let alone be a single parent and communicate with his son. They have an awkward, distant relationship, one that’s overcome with sadness and grief. Jackson thinks it would be best if Joe went away to baseball camp for the summer, but Joe is committed to helping his pal Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish his zombie movie.
For Joe, Charles’ project has become more of a priority ever since he learned Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) would be in it. Joe has a crush on her, even though his father and Alice’s father (Ron Eldard) don’t get along. The reasons for this are slowly revealed and it’s the development of this drama that makes Super 8 so moving. Deep down, Abrams knows we must first care about the characters before the plot for the movie to pay off (it’s no coincidence Abrams’ screenplay has Riley make a similar point about his zombie movie).
And we do care about these characters. There is a crucial scene between Joe and his father that is so well acted, timed and edited that I wish the movie had continued to explore their conflict and perhaps focused less on the train crash and the strange phenomena taking place around town, like people disappearing, car engines being stolen and the power going out. And why is the air force starting a fire and not telling the deputy what’s really going on?
Such happenings keep the plot in motion, and it is engaging, but what I’ll remember most about Super 8 are its scenes of raw emotion and the characters coming to terms with love and loss. The plot seems trivial by comparison, even though it’s credible and intelligent (or as credible and intelligent as a plot like this can be).
A strong cast is essential to making this material come alive and the actors do a good job of making us believe in them and take their situations seriously. This is especially true of the young actors, Courtney and Fanning, who are remarkable in the way they express feeling on-camera. We’d be right to expect more from them in the future.
As for the mystery, that’s for you to discover, but know the power of Super 8 lies not in what it reveals but in the way its characters learn, grow and survive. There are scenes that feel obligatory and convenient, and the movie’s deliberate derivation of Spielberg’s aforementioned alien adventures prevent it from having too many surprises, but it’s got a heart and soul that are warm and effective. These are the things we remember most about Close Encounters and E.T., and what we’ll remember most about Super 8.