Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams know how to craft a splendid story, and Super 8 was a joy to watch. There were great special effects, but the characters were also delightful and the story unfolded slowly and intriguingly.
Super 8 is set in the small steel town of Lillian, Ohio, in 1979 and revolves around pre-teen pals Joe Lamb ( Joel Courtney), Charles (Riley Griffiths), Preston (Zach Mills), Cary (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Alice (Elle Fanning). Joe’s mother has died in a mill accident as the film opens, leaving him and his father, Deputy Sheriff Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), to grieve in awkward dysfunctional silence.
Led by budding filmmaker Charles, the boys are busy making a zombie film called “The Case” when they sneak out at midnight to shoot some footage at the train station. As they watch in horror, there’s a tremendous train wreck and they barely escape with their lives.
Super 8 pays homage to the great kid adventure films of the ’80s, including The Goonies (co-written by Spielberg), along with much of Spielberg’s amazing oeuvre of films, including E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In fact, there are entire scenes that are almost lifted intact from these earlier films.
There are a few narrative hiccups, which makes me wonder if the director’s cut will add footage to better explain what’s happening and to improve the pacing. At one point, for example, Deputy Lamb is arrested and vanishes from the story for such a long time that I wondered if they forgot about him. There’s also a striking scene when Joe realizes that his dog is one of dozens that have mysteriously vanished from town; when they show up miles away, it’s hard to understand its significance.
I was a teen — albeit older than the characters in Super 8 — when the film was set, 1979, and was delighted by the extraordinary attention to detail that Abrams and his set decoration and production team put towards the era. From “Keep on Truckin’” posters juxtaposed with a cutaway illustration of the space shuttle to magazines and TV personalities glimpsed as boys run through living rooms, the set design is award-worthy in its verisimilitude.
One of the central conceits of the movie is a favorite theme of mine: a film about making movies. Watch the brilliant Rear Window and you’ll see Hitchcock exploring the difference between an observer and a participant, and Super 8 offers the same fascinating duality in a more modern setting.
When Alice and Joe are reading lines from “The Case,” is it for their benefit, or ours?
Both Spielberg and Abrams are masters of their craft, as demonstrated by the popular and critical hits in their past (including the terrific Star Trek reboot, the TV series Lost, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park, and the Indiana Jones series), and Super 8 is a splendid addition. Manipulative of the audience at times, trite with its “kids are good, adults are bad” sensibility, it was still a satisfying story with a group of terrific young actors and a completely expected and nonetheless touching finale. Highly recommended.