Film Review: “Super 8”

by Jason LeRoy on June 8, 2011

Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, and Ron Eldard in SUPER 8

starring: Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich, Joel Courtney, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Ryan Griffiths, Gabriel Basso, AJ Michalka

written and directed by: J.J. Abrams

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.

Super 8 is an earnest, nostalgia-driven monster movie from the mind of J.J. Abrams, best known for Lost and still riding a hype wave from his superlative Star Trek film. But more than Abrams, Super 8 bears the unmistakable stamp of its producer, Steven Spielberg. The tone is set right from the Amblin Entertainment title screen, with that immediately reassuring E.T. graphic. In some ways, Super 8 is E.T.‘s darker, more violent, less timeless cousin.

The year is 1979, and our protagonist is sweet-natured Joe (Joel Courtney), a middle school student in Lillian, OH (although the film was actually shot in lovely Weirton, WV). As the film begins, Joe is mourning the sudden and terrible death of his mother. He now finds himself in the care of his taciturn father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), the town deputy, with whom Joe had a distant relationship before his mother died. But fortunately Joe keeps himself occupied with his devoted pack of dorky friends — Cary (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach Mills), Charles (Riley Griffiths), and Martin (Gabriel Basso).

Charles (who looks like Donkeylips 2.0) is an aspiring filmmaker constantly armed with a super 8 camera, and when school ends for the summer, he rounds up his friends to help him film a zombie movie. They find an unexpected female lead in Alice (Elle Fanning), the beautiful, sullen daughter of a troubled drunk (Ron Eldard). But one night, as they’re filming a scene on their town’s rickety train station, they witness an absolutely horrifying train accident. Almost immediately, Lillian is beseiged by Air Force officials tending to the wreckage. As their presence grows larger and more aggressive, mysterious happenings begin plaguing the small town.

What we have here is a movie about a pack of kids making a B-movie who suddenly find themselves living in a B-movie. If Super 8 had committed more fully to its winking, satirical premise, it would have been more successful. And while there are plenty of humorous bits, the film ultimately takes itself far too seriously. It swerves unfortunately, if predictably, into Spielbergian schmaltz and sentimentality: the death of a mother, estranged parents and children coming together through unimaginable circumstances, and of course the unmitigated fondness through which Abrams and Spielberg view Charles, the young filmmaker.

Comparisons to films like The Goonies, Stand By Me, and Stephen King’s IT are inevitable. At its best, though, Super 8 recalls Spielberg’s Jurassic Park; it similarly depicts the progression of childlike awe and wonder into fear and terror. One sequence in particular, on board an Air Force transportation bus, is especially reminiscent of that film. Super 8‘s adrenaline-pumping action sequences are all quite remarkable. The trainwreck is utterly sensational; it lasts so long and causes such destruction, you feel as if you’ve just relived the last six years of Lindsay Lohan’s career by the time it concludes.

The performances are all solid. The young cast is especially terrific, with a surprisingly nuanced and affecting lead by newcomer Joel Courtney and breakout comic turns by fellow newcomer Riley Griffiths and Ryan Lee. As in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, Elle Fanning displays an astonishing degree of soulfulness, poise, and maturity, especially considering that she was only 12 years old (?!?!?!?) at the time of production. And Kyle Chandler excels as a tough, stubborn authority figure, similar to his character on the dearly departed Friday Night Lights.

Super 8 will no doubt be favored by generations that grew up on E.T. and prefer their summer monster movies to have lots of heart and emotion. And while in many ways this is a successful film — it deserves a huge round of applause for the mere fact that it is based on an original screenplay and is neither a sequel nor a remake — some of the film’s good work is undone by a laughable resolution that combines the very worst tendencies of both Spielberg and Abrams. But it mostly redeems itself with a vastly amusing sequence that plays over the end credits, so make sure you stick around.

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